274 - How to Handle Copycats

On today’s episode of the podcast I’m talking about how to handle copycats. This covers anyone who is copying your business ideas, website copy, course materials, general artistic vision and point of view, etc. 

The more I’ve promoted my legal subscription, the more I’m seeing cases of copycats. To join the legal subscription visit notavglaw.com. Join by the end of March to become a founding member of the subscription (new name for the subscription coming soon). 

My examples in today’s episode are much like TV shows in that they are based on a true story but told in a way to protect the person whose specific example I’m referencing, but is also an example I’ve seen multiple, multiple times. 

My first example is about a fellow course creator friend who has courses, memberships and online content and this friend found out that another individual was copying their whole business - the business name was different, but the industry was similar, and this individual had bought all of my friend’s programs, downloaded all their email opt-ins and essentially copied the whole thing. 

This is one of the issues when we get into copyright. People come to me all the time saying they want to create a course, how do I prevent students from going on to create their own course based on mine? You can’t really inhibit someone’s ability to make money, but of course you don’t want them to straight up rip off your content. This gets dicey because let’s say you took a course four years ago and implemented it in your own business, at what point have you gained enough know-how and expertise with your own systems and examples to create your own course? The crux of the problem is that ultimately none of us are fully self-taught, either we learned our expertise from a college program or through educational resources or both. All of our knowledge is gained from somewhere but there needs to be a dividing line on when it becomes our own versus when it’s someone else’s and with this particular example, it was pretty clear that this line was far crossed. 

I had another friend with a similar, though not quite as egregious, situation. They sold templates online and they had a student who decided to sell the same products. The problem here was the websites, shopping carts and branding were all pretty similar. This creates customer confusion and that’s what we don’t want. 

My third example is an artist friend who has had a copycat of their distinct artistic style. They had someone slide  into their DMs saying they loved their work, and before long that person was making almost direct copies of the artwork. Inspiration is fine, copy and theft is not. 

What can you do about copycats? Let’s dive into copyright basics. 

A copyright protects a person’s original work of authorship like a song or book. There are three requirements a work must meet to be deemed a work of authorship:

  1. It must be original
  2. It must be fixed in a tangible expression, it can’t just be an idea in your head
  3. It must have some type of creativity associated with it, for example it can’t be an appendix or phone book. 

You obtain general copyright privileges as soon as you create a work, and this is generally misunderstood. What it means is as soon as you create a thing, as soon as you write something or create a piece of art, you own the copyright but registering that copyright is what gives you an added layer of protection which allows you to more easily defend your work. Copyright owners must show monetary harm in order to legally pursue someone. A registered copyright allows you to sue for money AND attorney fees without actual proof of damages. This is great if you plan to sue but beyond that it’s a serious piece of negotiation leverage. 

The copyright symbol is very similar to our trademark symbol with one important difference. The copyright symbol also shows the work is yours and helps you prove someone is being a bad faith actor if you need to sue them and translates to higher amounts for which you can sue and gives more leverage in negotiation. Unlike the R in a circle which is the trademark symbol, you can use the circle C copyright symbol before you register the copyright so go slap that on everything provided that you meet the three copyright requirements. 

The default rule is the copyright is owned by the author or creator of the work. The primary exception to this is works made for hire. Works created by employees are owned by the employer. Works made by contractors can be deemed works for hire if that contractor signs a valid work made for hire agreement. I include these in the Contract Club.

This works provided that the type of work falls in one of the allowable statutory categories, which are surprisingly limited and for this reason I highly recommend asking your contractors who are creating copyrightable work to sign a copyright release transfer of ownership. 

The bundle of rights - a copyright provides a collection of rights including:

  • The right to reproduce the work
  • The right to display or perform the work
  • The right to distribute the work
  • The right to create derivative work

Transferring some rights is typically deemed a license and licensing can be limited to just one of the rights like right to distribute the work like licensing to Amazon to distribute your book. Licenses can be exclusive or non-exclusive. A non-exclusive licenses says I’m permitting you to this thing but other people also get to do this thing. 

There’s a specific reason I recommend copyright registration before trademark registration  and the reason is purely economical and ease of doing it yourself. Trademarks are more expensive, more difficult, and are more dependent on cost benefit determining when a good time is to file. 

Registering your copyright is a great idea and applies to photos, collections of photos, books, artwork, etc. 

Depending on the magnitude of the copycat issue, you may want to handle it on your own first but when your entire business is being ripped off like I mentioned in one example, then I would go straight to an attorney but issues where it’s clear someone is just taking a little bit too much inspiration from you or you want to give them the benefit of the doubt, you may want to start with an informal email to politely tell them you’ve noticed that what they’re doing is a little bit too similar to you and that you don’t want to reach out to your attorney at this point so please take this off your website, change the name, etc. If you want to take a second step, join the legal subscription and we can write an email for you to send on your own behalf or we can write one sent from the firm saying you created this thing and it seems obvious to us that you were heavily inspired and we think that’s confusing to folks and in breach of copyright, would you mind adjusting the website accordingly? Another step is a DMCA takedown which is a notice to a website or YouTube etc. and if they think you have a case they can block that site or content from the Internet. We can also send a cease and desist letter as another option which is a formal letter from an attorney saying cease the behavior or we’ll cease the behavior. 

If you enjoyed today’s episode, share it online and tag me @bradenadamdrake


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