Why imitation isn’t always flattery – copycats, plagiarists and other thieves

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Have you ever been a victim of fraud? Have you ever had your social media accounts hacked, someone pretending to be you, or a version of you? Have you ever had a fantastic idea at work, told your boss and they passed it off as their own, raking in all the glory? And you artists, has anyone ever copied your work? Be it credit card fraud or theft of mental property – ultimately the perpetrators had a ride at your expense. Your hard work – with one swoop they have taken it as their own. I have experienced both, being robbed of physical and mental property, and it has evoked a range of feelings in me, every time. Having grown up with morals and common decency, I am at a loss to understand why some people steal. Especially when it comes to copying someone’s creative work, I’ve asked myself and others:
Is imitation really flattery? Or is it just plagiarism and theft?

My first exposure to having creative work stolen was at primary school, when we were tasked to write a short story. I had always been a keen writer with a wild imagination and thrived on such projects. Upon completion and glancing over at my neighbour’s booklet I noticed that she had simply copied my idea and had even drawn a similar picture. I wasn’t flattered. I was upset. Too upset to confront her and angry that anyone would potentially think that she had been the one who had come up with the idea of the story, getting the praise that was supposed to be mine. Luckily our teacher knew my style of writing and had soon worked out who had copied from whom. But the damage was done and I never trusted the girl again. I also realised that I detested being copied, being fiercely protective of my authenticity and originality. The stories coming from my head were mine, yes, for others to enjoy but not to be passed off as theirs.
Fast forward a few years and I had a short-lived affair with being a copycat myself. There was this beautiful girl in my class at school and I wanted to be like her. So I got my mum to buy me clothes like hers and I tried to act like her, too. You can guess the result: Quite literally, the clothes and style somehow didn’t fit – I looked hideous and unnatural, like I was trying too hard. I quickly reverted back to being myself, continuing the search for my own style.
Having worked in an industry for many years where copying and replicating products and trends is common, you may think that I have become accustomed and immune to it, even approving of it. Fact is that I am not. What’s more, blatant imitation can get you very quickly into very sticky situations and ugly legal battles. This highlights that even the law acknowledges copyright and originality. But whereas multi-billion players in the market can battle such disputes out with more ease, the heartache and damage is far greater for individuals. During my research I heard of an artist who had his work stolen and saw it printed on t-shirts. Another conversation revealed someone’s research having been copied that took years to gather. And a friend of mine told me about his recent troubles with his new business into which, as you can guess, he poured his heart and soul. And then someone just copied it – down to the very fine details. He’s devastated. And at court. I hope he’s got a good solicitor.

It made me wonder: is there some underlying psychological reason for people to copy and imitate? What motivates someone to copy a creative property of someone else and shamelessly pass it off as their own? Is it to make up for shortcomings? Are they not happy with their own life and how they are?
Now, we’re all inspired by someone or something and use bits and pieces of the world around us. What we experience and learn then somehow churns out into our own creative work. And that’s ok and natural. What I have a real problem with is blatant copying without acknowledgement of the original source or trying to pass it off as your personal achievement. Yes, people have similar experiences but some things are just too alike to be a coincidence.   Whatever it is and whatever the thief’s reasons, it generates a mixture of feelings in me: frustration, pity and sadness. Frustration because, well, they have stolen from me, pity because they can’t come up with anything original themselves and feel the need to exploit others, and sadness because it somehow casts a shadow on my work and the beauty it held for me. I just can’t get my head around it. I have always been taught that stealing is wrong and university reiterates this: if you refer to or use someone else’s work then you must reference it, otherwise it’s plagiarism.

Why am I so passionate about this and so against stealing ideas? Let me tell you, it’s hard work being creative. It doesn’t just hit you every second of the day; you have to work on it, re-think it, re-work it, and sometimes throw the whole damn piece out the window. So when you do produce something it’s a huge achievement, something to be immensely proud of. When someone then just takes it and claims it as theirs, it feels like daylight robbery; only this time it’s not your hard-earned cash or precious jewellery. It’s your hard-earned mental property and your precious creative output, and the worst of all is, that having your brainchild kidnapped is a loss that no money in the world can replace.
So who are those thieves? Often they are total strangers and feel no attachment to you; hence it’s easy to steal from you. But sometimes they are known to us, which makes it really difficult, to both comprehend why a so-called friend would do this and to confront the offender. They have one thing in common though: they really don’t care about your feelings. It’s all about their gain. The common pattern is selfishness and having no scruple. They are phonies and frauds, quick to move on to their next heist, careless of what devastation they have caused. They are false and dishonest, just like ‘real’ thieves. However, just because you can’t easily call the police on those thieves, doesn’t mean their actions are justified.
During my adult years I have learnt one thing: the more I allowed myself to be me, to not try and copy someone else’s life, their opinions or style, the more liberated I felt and the more at ease I was. In return, I am drawn to and admire people who do their own thing. They inspire me to carry on doing my own thing, too, and to never be afraid to stand out from the crowd. I do what I like and what works for me, what makes my heart sing and what I am passionate about. Ultimately, it has taken me many years to become that brave, but I am now there and feel empowered. I certainly won’t let go or hand over my ideas and creativity for someone else to copy and claim it as their own.

So, to all those copycats out there, here’s my message to you: go and be original – isn’t it much more fun to create something to truly call your own? Before you just take someone else’s work and claim you came up with it, stop and reflect on your actions. What you’re doing is hurtful and pretty rank. Put simply: It stinks! And whilst we, the victims, can’t prosecute you (yet), remember that we can expose you, because, in the end, you’re not the original, just a cheap knock-off. Be brave: allow yourself to have your own ideas. Who knows – you may be surprised to find your own style, which, incidentally, requires much less effort and will come more naturally to you in the long-term. If you do draw inspiration from someone then tell them. Everyone likes to hear that they have inspired someone to do their own creative thing, without copying. That is flattery. And better yet, with your own ideas and originality, no one will dislike and distrust you for being a fraud.

 

Acknowledgements:

A huge thank you to everyone I spoke to in the last few weeks, about opening up about their experiences and contributing to examples in this blog.

6 thoughts on “Why imitation isn’t always flattery – copycats, plagiarists and other thieves

  1. Hey there, very nice blog you got going here! Usually you just go to a friend’s blog out of courtesy and then you say something nice about it even though it really wasn’t all that great, because you’re trying to be nice. This is genuinely interesting though, and a pleasure to read!

    As for this:

    >What motivates someone to copy a creative property of someone else and shamelessly pass it off as their own?

    I think that answer is simply: Profit. Monetary, social. Most people are alright, but a few are pricks and will do anything to get ahead. Human nature if you will. I firmly believe though that being a copycat will come back to haunt you. Either because your career is unsustainable because you’re not what you pretended to be. Or maybe someone starts digging in your past. Remember Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Fantastic subject matter…The slogan of the year: Go and Be Original! Seriously you articulated your passion, concern and insights very well. I am glad you have grown to be such a brave woman. Kudos. I look forward to reading more of your work

    Liked by 1 person

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