In freelancing (and in anything creative, really), there are going to be times when people copy what you do. It can be incredibly frustrating, especially when you’ve poured your heart into your business. I know one former freelancer whose amazing website was copied no less than five times!
Sometimes, you can take some specific actions. Other times, it’s more of a mental game.
Here’s what you can do when someone copies your freelance work and/or kick arse freelance project ideas
How prevalent is copying in freelancing?
I don’t have any statistics on the subject, but I would wager copying happens a lot more than we think. I know people who have faced it multiple times. I know people who cry when they have their work or marketing copied. But fail to recognise and acknowledge it when they do it to others. I’ve personally experienced it when people have conveniently forgot they copied and brushed it aside when asked. And I’ve seen that happen to others, too.
The problem that we have in freelancing is thorny because there are so many moving parts. For example, whether you are stealing like an artist or copying like a fraud.
When we work or teach, we’re using the principles of design, marketing, advertising, writing and more set down by other creatives that have come before us. We’re back ending onto someone else’s unravelling of algorithms and tech. We’re forever looking for what we are and who we are in a sea of essentially the same bones in curriculum, delivery system and general knowledge.
The difference really lies in our attitude, our ability to inspire the crowd and the creativity within. It’s there that you can make a difference.
Prevention is better than cure
In Australia, the work you produce is automatically protected by Copyright. But this doesn’t mean exactly what you have done is yours to protect. For example, copyright only protects the expression of an idea rather than the idea itself. And there are thresholds the work might need to meet.
The Queensland government business website has a great copyright table that breaks down the copyright process as well as discusses where the lines are drawn from produced works through to idea stage. The same website also has a list of creative and business elements that qualify under copyright.
You can also check out what copyright is and how it applies in Australia via the copyright section of the Infrastructure Australia website.
If you are going to create something new for the market, you may want to check where the limitations of copyright might be for you. And what you might need to protect.
For example, is there anything distinct about the methodology and curriculum you’ve created that you can point to? Sometimes these elements can be used in this manner to prove ownership as long as they are distinct and an innovation on existing products and methods in the market. Or if you are producing something completely new such as a new methodology, a new technology or a start-up idea.
A couple of places you can look at are:
- The Copyright Council provides assistance, training and general education information in one tidy website
- IP Australia for information, verification and registration for intellectual property. This includes information on digital products and code or things like design rights and trademarks
- Artslaw for advice, to learn your rights as a creative and leads
- The Business Victoria website for advice on how to protect your business name and/or business idea
- The Fitzroy Legal Service has a great guide on apps, websites, design, photo scanning, linking and protecting your material
And you can find direct advice from lawyers like:
- Finding out your options via a paid service like Legalvision
- Contacting a patent lawyer such as the Jungle’s own Jarrod Ward
- Seeing contract advice and other support from people like lawyer Paul Gordon
Even if you are circling back after an event, the bodies and individuals listed above can usually help guide you through your options. Whether or not that is a free or a paid service will likely depend on the complexity of your individual situation.
Please note: with any kind of legal advice, it’s always best to share the particulars of your situation so that you can receive tailored advice.
Other steps you can take
So, you’re maybe not building something from the ground up, but you still want the surprise protected. I totally get it.
Here are a couple of things you can consider for extra piece of mind with those sassy new freelance projects and products you are building:
Stay stum on specifics
You don’t have to give every detail over lunch with your fellow freelancers or with that new VA you are looking to hire. One of the simplest ways to avoid freelancers stealing your ideas, especially before you get them ready for launch, is keeping your adventures on the downlow.
Don’t let the excitement get the better of you. It’s always better to cook 80-90% of the cake before demoing it. Especially after something like this because it gives you piece of mind.
Keep the details close to your chest so they don’t get the chance if they are not inside the tent to peek.
Protect what you can before you talk
Not all ideas can happen without finding people to work on them. However, you can protect them when necessary.
Talk to someone like Paul Gordon or Jarrod Ward about what elements are worthy of protection if you are building new, dazzling things. And how to limit the spread of information generally through NDAs or contracts.
Heck, they may even have some pointers on how to discuss an idea without giving the game away. They’re both pretty clever.
Understand copying and its place
Recognise the limitations of the world in which freelancers create. Anyone that tells you they pioneered teaching SEO who didn’t start their career at Google or Yahoo is having a laugh.
There is opensource software, code we use regularly, out-of-the-box course builders and a whole lot of other stuff that proves we survive through replication.
As much as we love the idea of breaking new ground and creating new frontiers, the majority of freelancers have learned their craft directly from adopting other freelancers and pioneers’ knowledge, know-how and techniques.
Sometimes, we need to recognise that copying is somewhat inescapable when we’re limited to foundations of code, algorithms, teaching techniques, delivery systems and approaches. There will be crossover.
Give yourself a shot in the arm
It’s OK to feel hurt and disappointed when you are faced with a freelance copycat. But what is important is what you do with those feelings after the fact. As this blog on unpacking the emotions related to it demonstrates.