Photo by Augustin Ruiz on Flickr.
You spend countless hours developing a unique product, refining it, tweaking the pattern, sourcing the perfect materials, taking beautiful product shots, writing winning marketing copy for the listings, and cultivating a community around your work. And then, one afternoon you’re sifting through Pinterest and there’s your image of your beautiful handmade product, the basis of your business, repinned on someone’s “DIY” or “Must Make” board with the comment, “I totally going to make this for my son!”
What is your reaction? How does seeing this pin, reading the name of the board, and the comment make you feel?
Are you disappointed that they didn’t want to buy the original from your?
Are you angry that this person is explicitly stating that they intend to copy you?
Are you worried that they’ll turn around and start a business that will compete with yours, maybe with prices lower than yours?
I think it’s natural to be flooded with these feelings upon seeing something like this and it’s not exclusive to the environment of Pinterest. I’ve sat behind my table at a craft fair and had a mother pick up one of my pieces and turn to her daughter and say, “We should make something like this!” only to return the piece to the table and walk away.
These feelings of rage, of anxiety, of fear, doubt and disappointment can well up in you in those moments. But I’d like to put forth a new way of framing these experiences after the intensity of feeling dies down.
Create a relationship with this person who is making you feel threatened. Talk to them, reach out to them, comment on their pinboard, visit their blog, chat with them on Twitter.
Because you will become human to them. When you reach out you let that person in. You become known to each other. People are less likely to overtly copy someone that they feel they know. And, the other side of the coin is that they’ll know you’re out there, that you see them.
But more than just becoming human to them, become helpful. This person loves what you’re doing. They are inspired. They may never get around to making a copy and may not have the skills to. Could you help them to develop their skills? Could you encourage them in their own creative work?
When I first began posting my work online there were two artists whom I admired so greatly it hurt. I followed their blogs religiously, examined every Flickr photo they posted, loved their work deeply, perhaps too deeply. I tried to emulate their styles in my own work, perhaps at times going too far and crossing the line into mimicry.
One of those artists sent me a very angry email, an email that made me embarrassed and ashamed and put me in tears. She was angry and I was angry. I’ve never bought her work. Everything she does leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, even eight years later.
The other artist offered to help me. I asked for some advice and she was so generous. She looked at my work and told me where she thought my strengths were. She gave me advice that led me down the path to writing my first book. Her own career has been incredibly successful and I’ve bought multiple works of hers. Every success she experiences gives me joy as if it were my own success.
So most crucially here, could you turn this threatening potential copycat into a loyal customer? I would say yes. Not a definite yes, but a pretty probable yes. Maybe not tomorrow, but eventually.
I’m not advocating allowing people to explicitly copy your work and offer it for sale. Certainly you should protect your intellectual property and enforce its value to those who might not understand it. But don’t allow the emotion of the moment to destroy a potentially positive, and possibly lucrative, relationship. Set fear and anger aside and forge a bond with your copycat. In all likelihood you’ll be able to resolve the situation positively and bring an admirer closer to you and that’s a very good thing.