The Ethics of Idea Theft
Fact #1: Words can be copyrighted; ideas can’t.
Fact #2: Original ideas are about as rare as 10-karat diamonds.
“Idea theft,” as I’ve called it in the title of this post, has been on my mind for a couple of reasons.
The first incident happened a few months ago when a good friend of mine expressed anger about a guy who had “stolen” his ideas and created an information product similar to what my friend had already created.
I understood his anger and frustration, but pointed out that ideas can’t be copyrighted.
For instance, I wrote about overcoming inertia last week. Does that mean I’ve cornered the market on that idea? No way! Anybody can go out and write similar articles or create information products about that idea.
What people can’t do is copy the words I wrote verbatim. That’s a violation of copyright law.
So you can express the same ideas, but you have to do so using your own words.
Go to the business section of any bookstore and you’ll see literally dozens of books all covering many of the same ideas, strategies, and concepts.
If I want to go out and write a book about business growth, I can do so without breaking any laws–even if there are already multiple books that already talk about that subject.
Get this… Pamela Dodd and Doug Sundheim wrote a best-selling time management book called The 25 Best Time Management Tools & Techniques. If you go to Amazon.com and type in “time management,” their book will likely appear first, ahead of David Allen’s Getting Things Done.
How Did They Accomplish This?
Simple. They bought the top 20 time management books based on Amazon’s ratings, read them all, and “stole” the best ideas they found to write their own book, which quickly became a success.
This, in my opinion, should not be viewed as stealing. This is synthesizing. It adds value. And it’s how every person on planet earth operates.
I could not write a single word if it weren’t for all the books I’ve read, all the teachers I’ve learned from, and all the people who’ve contributed to my life. Am I “stealing” from them? No. It’s simply how we learn, process, and share information.
Now, let’s talk about the second incident that prompted me to write about ethics today.
I recently signed up for a service based on the recommendation of a fellow blogger. The results the service can provide are really fantastic, but the set-up instructions and help files are pathetic. A quick scan of the private forum confirms this seems to be the consensus among most of the users.
As you can imagine, this opens up the door to competition. If somebody has a great idea, but is deficient in the execution, then aggressive competitors are likely to smell an easy kill.
Here’s a general recipe for business success: Identify a problem, find somebody who is already solving that problem, then copy the idea behind the solution, and improve upon the solution. Sometimes summed up with these timeless words… Make a better widget.
Again, nothing wrong with this. It’s been done thousands of times and is routine in business.
So where do we cross the line? Said another way…
At What Point Are We Acting Unethically?
Everybody’s moral compass will be a little bit different. I, for one, would feel uncomfortable buying somebody’s ebook and then “rewriting” it in my own words. This happens all the time, even though I would not personally do it.
I would feel more comfortable reading multiple books or ebooks and then writing a book of my own based on what I had learned.
Whatever I wrote would contain ideas I had learned, plus my own style, my own unique perspectives, etc. By doing it this way, I would ensure that my creative work would be sufficiently different from the source material to be definitively my own.
Crossing the Line…
Let’s get back to this “second incident,” which I mentioned above. As I already said, the service under scrutiny is lacking in some respects, and that has opened the door to competition.
But I am not here to criticize the service provider; I’m here to criticize an infiltrator. And in this particular case, I believe the ethics line was crossed.
I witnessed it this morning when I received an email that APPEARED to come from the owners of the service I am subscribed to. Here is a copy of the email with the name of the service blanked out.
We see you are using __________.
A group of us have got together and wish to improve this great service, with our help. We are sure, like us, you love the system, but wished it was little less stringent.
If you are interested in a free account or just want to know more please fill in the form at http://___________.com
We just need your name and email, but you can include your likes, dislikes and any improvements you think can be made.
Work is already underway and any help or ideas will be greatly received.
Your ________ team
In each case where I’ve included a blank, the name of the service was used verbatim. Basically, whoever sent this email (and I believe I know who sent it) is pretending to be the service provider. He is inviting me to a “new and improved” service, which is not in any way affiliated with the original service I signed up for.
This kind of behavior is totally unethical and unacceptable.
Want to copy an idea and improve it? I have no problem with that.
But it has gone too far when a person hacks into a private community, steals customer email addresses, and then spams them with “new and improved” offers… all while pretending to be the original provider of the service!
This is not just idea theft…
It Is Customer Theft & Identity Theft, Too!
If there is a lesson in all of this, it is this: know what is lawful and unlawful. Know what is ethical and unethical. Determine for yourself where you will draw the line.
And let me encourage you to always err on the side of caution. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t, even if the law may allow it. Act in such a way that you can be proud of the work you have done… and still sleep well at night.
And if you decide ethics don’t matter, and you believe you can act however you want in the name of profit, then be sure to watch your back. What goes around comes around…
-Ryan M. Healy