Theft of ideas happens all the time in the creative industry. When you come up with something fresh and exciting that attracts attention, it’s inevitable that you will be ripped off at some point by others looking to ride on the coattails of your success. And yes, it sucks.
Contrary to popular belief, imitation is not the highest form of flattery – it’s simply annoying and makes things that much harder for the up and coming designer to distinguish him or herself from the hordes of copycats.
I could tell you to just suck it up and move on when it happens to you (and it will, if you’re popular enough), but that’s not very helpful when you’re feeling cheated and robbed, and the thief is off getting paid for your hard work. This is a common problem with a few unconventional solutions, which we will now explore.
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1. Let Them Take The Fall
If your idea wasn’t very good in the first place, you’ll soon know from the response your competitor will get. They’ll try to get validation from others, either clients or fans. They’ll be roundly criticized for presenting such a bad idea, or, if they’re really unlucky, others will point out publicly that they stole the original idea from you (which, if it’s bad, is not a good thing).
If your idea doesn’t work for your thief, you now know what to do better. You can tweak your own work and avoid the mistakes they made. If it does work… you now know what to do better. You come up with an even better idea and execute it in a way that leaves people with no doubt as to who the better designer is.
2. Kick Their Ass
Stealing an idea is easy but actually making a design do what it’s supposed to (solve a problem) is hard. When you get ripped off by an inferior designer, it can feel like being hit in the stomach. How dare that hack think he can copy your genius and get away with it? Doesn’t he know how hard you work to develop the perfect design solutions and earn the highest praise from your viewing audience?
You can hit back by being a thousand times better than anyone who would steal your idea. If you’re really committed to making this idea of yours work, you owe it to yourself, and your client or viewers to go above and beyond anything the other party would even think to do.
You’re the better designer, after all. Send them home with their tail between their legs.
3. You’re The Architect
Just because someone “stole” your “idea” doesn’t mean they know what to do with it or how you arrived at the idea in the first place. You’re the architect of your idea, not your copycat. That means you have the blueprint from which to generate a new one (there’s more where that came from). If you have the framework in place for generating even better ideas (which you should), you have nothing to worry about.
Even if you don’t have the framework for generating ideas, you have an entirely different and more fundamental problem than someone stealing your ideas. I’d recommend going back to the drawing board and developing new ways of brainstorming and cataloguing your ideas so that you get the best ones flowing to you when you need them.
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4. Keep Your Mouth Shut Next Time
Even if you’re just “talking shop” with another designer, you never know when they’re going to decide that they can steal your idea and get credit for it behind your back (or even right in front of you). Not only does keeping quiet about your ideas until they’re done prevent anyone from stealing them during a crucial moment, it also helps ensure that you’ll actually get them done.
Another thing to consider is the psychology of talking about your ideas to others. Besides simply getting ripped off, there’s another, more dangerous reason that blabbing too much is a bad idea: it decreases the likelihood that you will ever do anything with it yourself.
The more you talk about an idea, the less likely you are to actually finish it, because your brain sees your bragging about it and takes it as a sign that it’s already done. Therefore, it will give the signal that it’s okay to slack off, or give something else a higher priority, and your brilliant idea will end up languishing in the corner, forgotten.
5. A Note About Legal IP Theft
If the person stealing the idea is a client who didn’t pay or a large company taking advantage of your small status, you may have legal recourse if you filed for copyright or trademark protection of your work. If the idea is significantly developed, it might even be worth it to file a patent to protect yourself. See your local IP laws as they vary from country to country.
Just remember that suing people takes money, quite possibly more than the idea is worth at this point in time. Unless you can pay for the legal fees, or you can clearly see that you’re getting robbed of significant profits that are rightfully yours, it’s probably better to just follow steps 1 to 4.
What Do You Think?
Have you ever had an idea stolen by unscrupulous competitors? What did you do about it? Do you think stolen ideas are worth getting upset over, or do you simply let it go with the confidence that you can come up with something even better?