Recently a coaching client tearfully shared during a session that they had discovered some of their content on a colleague's website. I had been working with this client for several months helping with the website, so I was very familiar with this colleague's creativity and writing style.
Comparing the websites, while the offending colleague's content was slightly different, the website lay out, titles, colors, design, some of the unique key words, the tone and "flavor" of the writing, were far too similar to be anything but plagiarism.
I wish this was the first conversation I have had with my therapist coaching clients in walking them through this kind of professional betrayal, but sadly it is not.
For Fricks Sake - Can We Stop Copy Catting Already!
I have had therapist coaching clients share that they have found their blog content on other websites, or their Psychology Today profile copied nearly word for word, or taglines, logos, website designs, original quotes, materials, forms, webinar ideas, passive income ideas, e-books, and you name it, ripped right off of their websites and social media.
The old adage, "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery" comes up short for me when I see therapists and healing professionals engaging in this kind of unethical and illegal practice. There is nothing flattering at all when a colleague does this.
If it has happened to you (and it has happened to me), it feels like a professional punch in the gut, it impacts trust, and leaves one feeling vulnerable and hurt. Especially if the offender is someone that you have supported, been of service to, or is a colleague friend.
The Difference Between Similar Ideas and Plagiarism
Stop for a moment and carefully read this definition of plagiarism. Do you notice that plagiarism is not just about copying something word for word? Plagiarism also applies to ideas and creative arts as well.
However, not every similar idea is an act of plagiarism. There are times when we therapists will have ideas that are similar to one another. That does happen. Perhaps our specialization is closely related and we create the same kind of trauma or recovery group, or anger management workshop, or couples therapy webinar, or podcast, or e-book for parents. And, while it may not feel all that great, it is not a legal or ethical breech.
For example, a therapist has every right to start their own on line or Facebook coaching group similar to my Like A Boss Facebook coaching group. I don't own the rights to the "idea" of paid Facebook coaching groups.
However, if that colleague then calls their coaching group, "Boss Babes" or "Let's be just like a Boss" and/or they market using a similar tone and tenor on social media or in their blogs, or closely copy my marketing memes, use my group format and/or my curriculum and so forth; or they start blogging about multiple income streams using words similar to my own Mari-isms to promote their copy cat group, yep, you better believe I am going to have an issue with this, and that colleague and I will be having a serious discussion.
Or a therapist may create materials or a workshop that is similar to my own, or your own. Again, I/you/we don't own the "idea" of particular materials or workshops, (unless those are trademarked, which I often do and you may want to consider doing as well). That colleague is free to follow their internal ethical compass and do as they like with their idea.
However, here is a tip regarding an internal compass: Why would you want to copy your colleague friend's idea? Be your own boss and find another idea that is uniquely your own. There is nothing worse that finding out a colleague friend that you have been generously supporting with tips and advise, turns around and copy cats right under your nose. While it may not be illegal, it is still crappy behavior. Please don't be that person. Is it worth losing trust and respect? There are plenty of ideas out there. Find yours.
And, while ideas may be similar at times, as clinicians we know deeply in our spirits and guts when someone has taken an idea or our words and used them as their own. And that is never OK. Even if the colleague is a nice person, even if it is a colleague that everyone adores, or a supervisor we trusted, or an instructor we respect, or a social media darling, and even if that colleague denies up one side and down the other that they have done this, or finds a way to justify their shabby behavior, at the end of the day, we know when this has happened.
And guess what, simply because we are compassionate healers does not mean that we are required to participate in gas lighting ourselves when this happens. While difficult, professionally addressing a breech of law and ethics is not being mean spirited, paranoid, selfish, greedy, or unfair. It is honoring one's time and investment as well as legal boundaries and professional ethics around another person stealing content or ideas.
Would you break in to my home and steal?
Your website content, your social media content, your blogs, your taglines, your logos, your materials packets, your e-books, your webinar or workshop curriculum is your intellectual property. And as it is illegal for a person to break in and steal items from your home, it is just as illegal for that person to come and take your words and creative information.
This is how Webster Dictionary describes Intellectual Property:
Your words, your videos, your art, your materials, your form, your unique, creative ideas, your website design, all of it, every bit of it, is YOUR property. And as such, no one, not a therapist, not a colleague, has a right to ever, not ever steal your information, even bits or pieces of your intellectual property, and pass it off as their own.
Oh, and this feels like a great time to address two tired little proclamations that are being tossed around the clinical community these days: "Scarcity Mentality" and "Creativity Hoarding". May I simply say, WTF? While this does exist, let's be sure to keep these axioms in context. Unfortunately, I see these phrases being bandied about now and then by folks in order to minimize and shame their colleagues who choose to hold good boundaries around protecting their intellectual property. I believe these overused sayings are sometimes stated by people who feel envious or do not trust their own voice and skill and creative muse.
I think a healthier way of phrasing this would be, "There is enough creativity to go around, we don't need to knock off other colleagues ideas, products, or website content."
There is nothing scare about that idea - it's a simple fact. Creativity doesn't have a limit.
How to Protect Yourself from Plagiarists
Recently, a coaching client from my Like A Boss group asked why I have password protected pages on my own websites. It was an excellent question, and here was my response to the client:
"The protected page is the client forms page. Sadly, I had to password protect b/c other therapists were grabbing my forms packets from that page, and then I would see my forms on their websites. As careful as we are, as much as we clearly state our copyright on our website, people will continue to grab forms, website copy, and blog content from our sites.
Sometimes a person will closely copy content from my website thinking that changing a few words here or there will "hide" their plagiarism. But when one is a writer, you know your "voice" and writing style - it is a unique as a fingerprint. It is a very sad practice and dirty little secret in our profession.
And when a therapist does this, they will not attract or keep their ideal client. Why? Because they did not trust themselves enough to explore their own voice in writing, or work with a coach who could help them develop their unique style, and as a result of their stealing content, tweaking it a bit, and using as if it is their own, the client is actually connecting to someone else on the plagiarizing therapist's website vs the original therapist who wrote the content in the first place.
Not a good way to start the clinical relationship. And, that is not Karma any of us want. So, I password protect the pages that I can with my packages of intellectual property."
Protect Your Creative Offerings
Here are some ways you can protect your intellectual property from being ripped off:
3. Password protect your forms
4. Date stamp your blogs
5. Do not overshare your ideas on social media while you are developing those ideas
6. Hire a business attorney (this is a good idea for every business person regardless)
7. Email a draft to yourself (note: emailing or mailing is often not enough evidence)
8. Go to www.copyscape.com (a free website where you enter your website address and they issue a report of people copying your content)
9. Email a polite but clear request for the material or copy to be removed with the report from copyscape
10. If your email is ignored, you can send a letter to the offender that is firmly professional and outlines the DMCA copyright act (Digital Millenium Copyright Act, Title 17, section 512, US Code), and that your next step will be to hire an attorney.
A Note to the Copycats Reading this Right Now
If you are a copy cat, or you have plagiarized, if you have taken an idea or part of another person's creative intellectual property, you are probably not a big fan of what you are reading right now. Your brain is either a) defending against this information and justifying your actions, or b) you are feeling regret and shame, or c) feeling a bit panicky and anxious.
If you fall in to category A, well, not much more to say here. Except, eventually your actions will catch up to you. If you fall in to category B or C, now is the time to own it, contact the person(s) you have hurt, apologize, remove the content or materials or forms or (fill in the blank), and start figuring out what is informing this kind of behavior.
Then, get the help you need. That may be a therapist, or it may be a coach you hire to support your steps forward in developing yourself professionally. We all start somewhere! You do not need to feel ashamed to ask for help. It took me 40 of my 55 years to develop my writer's voice and I have been honing my creative skills for decades.
The best thing to do if a person confronts you on your copy catting ways is to own it. Fully. Apologize. And remove the content. Please do not use excuses like "My web designer must have done that", or "My virtual assistant must have done that", or "Wow, great minds think alike!" Believe me, we've all heard these tired excuses and ain't nobody buyin' what you are sellin' when you do this.
Look friend, you don't need to copy. You don't need to plagiarize. You don't need to justify why it is OK to knock off products. You don't need to stand in your entitlement and excuses that it is OK to imitate a colleague friend's hard work or creative ideas. You don't need to bullshit if you are busted.
All you need to do is to trust that you have the creativity and talent to design your own brand and ideas.
Trust that please.
Let's be People of Integrity
In closing, plagiarism is not just copying word for word. It is also passing off ideas and writing styles as one's own. It's overhearing or reading about an idea a colleague has, and then taking part of that idea and sneaking it in to your own offerings.
And that, at the very least, is unethical. And at the worst, is illegal. And always is really funky (not in a good way).
If this has happened to you dear colleague, I am sorry. Truly. But please do not be afraid to contact the person directly and discuss this infringement with them. When you do, please be respectful, non assumptive (mistakes do happen after all), and professional, and always extend the benefit of the doubt without doubting your own intuition if they deny your reality.
However, if it is a serious breech of law, if your business is being impacted, if your SEO is being dinged because they are copying content on to their website, or stealing ideas, then you may need to hire an attorney to write a letter on your behalf. No one wants to do this, but you deserve to have representation if a person is crossing legal boundaries.
Now, thankfully I've never had to do that, but if something I created that was near and dear to my heart was stolen or copied by a colleague, I would first attempt to contact them kindly and professionally, and then move forward legally if need be.
That said, I certainly have addressed what I call "idea thievery" now and then when a colleague has done this (thankfully only 3-4 times in all of these years). Unfortunately each time this was addressed, the colleague either denied it, or they justified their cruddy actions, or they took a stance of entitlement, "how dare you call me on my crap!"
Am I going to sue them? No. But there will be consequences for their choices, namely that they have lost my trust, respect, admiration and, they have lost all rights to interact with me professionally or personally. I'll be polite, and I will forgive, but I will keep a very wide distance.
At the end of the day, copy cats and rip offs are a part of every profession...yes, even our beloved therapy world. You can't fight every battle, but you can set boundaries. I tend to deal with the occasional copy cat by using this little affirmation that I created to keep me grounded when a gut punch like this happens:
"I have an unlimited source of creative ideas, and rather than engaging in unhealthy competition, I will keep creating new ideas, content, offerings and services, and as a result I will attract clients who respond to who I am, and abundance and blessings will flow in my direction." ~Mari Lee
And isn't that the kind of professional life each one of us really desires to create?
xo ~ Mari
P.S. Have you had an experience of someone copy catting you? You are welcome to share below (just remember that this is a respectful, safe space, and we don't name names).
Or do you need help with developing your writing and creative skills? If so, don't be shy, pop over to my calendar and set up time so that we can get you moving in the right direction. This is a shame free, judgement free zone. Promise.