The Imitation Game: Dealing with copycats


If you want to be original, be ready to be copied – Coco Chanel

No disrespect Mademoiselle but imitation is actually the sincerest form of annoyance. In the big wide world of business, you’ll always find someone trying to hitch a ride on your creative bandwagon. As a diligent business owner, you do need to keep an eye on competitors and potential copycats. But the key is not to focus all your time and energy on these mimics, otherwise this annoyance can turn into an unnecessary and unhealthy distraction.

If your business is attracting a herd of copycats, here’s some practical, and pro-active ways, to deal with an unwanted following.

You do you

Sorry for the cliché folks but hear me out. We all have our own personality, style, skills, experience and knowledge. These are all forms of personal IP. All these personal intangible elements combine to make you, your story and your business – unique. It might not be possible to protect some of these personal qualities through formal means of IP protection. But it might not even be necessary, because it can be bloody hard to capture and copy that X-factor. So get on with the business of being you. If someone wants to try and copy you, it’ll only ever be skin deep. 

Mark your IP territory

Take steps to identify any valuable IP within your business and, where possible invest in formal IP protection for your work or assets:

  • if you want exclusive ownership of brand assets such as your brand name, logo, taglines, then trade mark registration is a worthwhile investment;
  • if you have a unique functional product or process, you might need to consider patent protection; and
  • if it’s form over function, then design registration can help protect your product’s one-of-a-kind look. 

Your business may need to be kitted out with one or a combination of these different forms of IP protection. Also keep in mind, IP protection doesn’t happen overnight, so consider investing in it early on. And if you are dealing with a legit copycat issue, don’t go public and don’t go it alone. Get in touch with an IP attorney sooner rather than later, to find out what your rights and options are.

Create a trail blazing paper trail

If you want to take action against a copycat for copyright infringement, you’ll need to prove that copyright exists and that you own it. This can be difficult in Australia because there’s no way or need to formally register for copyright protection; you’re granted copyright ownership and protection when you create an original work. But there’s things you can do to help establish your copyright ownership:

  • include a copyright notice on your work e.g. website, documents etc. The format of a copyright notice is typically: © symbol, followed by the name of the copyright owner, and the year the work was created. A copyright notice isn’t needed to protect your work but helps put others on notice that your work isn’t a freebie to be used without your permission;
  • keep and date various notes, drafts or photographs of your work. This can help show a creative timeline of your work at various stages of your creative process; 
  • embed information such as your name or company name and creation date, in the metadata of any digital images or files; and
  • despite the wonders of modern technology, some days things just don’t play nice – yes Mac rainbow wheel I’m looking in your direction. So don’t forget to back up (not overwrite) your work and files so you don’t lose evidence of your creativity.

Pen to paper

A paper trail is one thing, but proper paperwork is another. Invest in having proper contracts, agreements, policies, and terms and conditions in place for yourself and your business. It helps set out expectations and obligations between you and your clients, customers, employees, co-workers and third parties, in relation to any IP assets you may have. This paperwork can be extremely helpful if push comes to shove and you end up on the set of Law & Order having to fight for your IP rights against a potential copycat. Remember: handshakes are a courtesy not a legality. 

Authenticity is everything

Authenticity provides serious currency to any business. Create an authentic experience for your customers and audience. When done consistently, these authentic additions and experiences can become iconic and set you apart from any cheap and nasty imitators. For examples:

  • invite your customers or audience to peek behind your creative curtain. Give folks a glimpse into your day-to-day or your process with BTS snippets. This can help people to get to know you and your business. Of course, don’t give away your secret sauce entirely!;
  • include signature touches to your products or packaging. For example, a Chanel box is just as pretty as the goodies inside, each black box is adorned with Coco Chanel’s favourite flower – a white camellia. And Willie Wonka might have the golden ticket but one of our favourite Aussie chocolate makers Hey Tiger delivers golden parcels of chocolatey goodness;
  • create a unique unboxing or welcome experience. We were recently blown away by the uber-cool welcome from Up Banking – yes you read right, a bank. Receiving a new bank card in the post is one of life’s more uneventful events; but not with Up. They had us at hello letterpress and all we have to say is #upyeah;
  • personalise the brand experience for your customers. Take a sweet-smelling note from the folks at Le Labo. Each perfume is individually prepared, the label is then dated and personalised with the customer’s name. A unique product experience can become a personal one that your customers won’t forget in a hurry; and
  • include unique ways to authenticate your products. Our favourite hyper-realistic drawing deity, CJ Hendry provides an encoded coin to authenticate each of her original artworks. Aussie social enterprise Thankyou includes a unique tracker ID on every product, which links to details of a project that the product helps fund.

Be a tech head

‘Cause we are living in a digital world, it pays to be tech savvy. There’s so many tricks and tools to help you protect your work and business online:

  • reduce accessibility to your online content by disabling right click on your website;
  • use security protocols or software to control access, printing and sharing of files and documents;
  • watermark your images and files;
  • include your name or company name in any image metadata. Bonus: this can also help with SEO; and
  • if you have copycats creeping around your socials – block ‘em. Turn off the inspiration tap and force them to go sniffing elsewhere for content and ideas.

Settling is unnatural, so shake well 

Copycats can be a thorn in your side but being complacent in your own business is what will really hurt you in the long run. Any competitive edge you might have today, could be gone tomorrow. Curiosity fuels creativity so continue to question, explore and create better product and service offerings to fill the wants and needs of your customers. Keep an eye on emerging trends within your market or industry, even other industries, and see how it might improve or effect your business. If you keep running the good creative race, chances are your copycats won’t have the cardio to keep up.

Get rid of that crick in your neck and stop constantly looking over your shoulder at your copycats. Continue flexing your creative muscles instead. Focus your energy on your business and where it needs to go; not who’s following in your footsteps. Because remember:

Copycats may try and take your style, but they’ll never take your creative freedom.

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