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‘Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery’ Said the Plagiarist!

When I was 9 years old, I had a times table test every Monday morning. A test I needed to spend my weekends preparing for. Yet, a test which posed no threat to the enjoyment of my weekend, as I knew I’d ace my Monday Maths! I always aced my tables tests, but not because I was mathematically gifted or talented. I cheated. Every time. Why lose Saturday and Saturday to reciting numbers, when I could be playing kick-the-can, 20-20-in, or knock and run?

I had a ruler which hid the times tables on the back. Whilst the teacher thought I was diligently underlining my work, I was searching for the answer to 9×8 without using my fingers! Clever kid, hey? Turns out the colossal side-effect with cheating is that you never actually learn anything. Ask me today what 9×8 is and you’ll likely hear, ‘Ooh, hang on. So, I know that 8 x 8 is 64, so add on 9 (and now the fingers will be out) and the answer is 73. No, 74. I mean 72!’ The life-lesson? Cheating = short term gain, long term loss!

In a similar vein, I remember having a best friend during my teens who copied me relentlessly. My new 80s hair-style became her new 80s hair-style; my new shoulder-padded coat became her new shoulder-padded coat; my new bag, you get the point. I had a mimic, and to begin with I liked our shared fashion choices. They united us, but it didn’t take long before I became deeply irritated with her incessant copying. Like my younger self, cheating in my maths’ tests, my friend chose the easy option every time. She lacked the confidence and effort required to carve her own path.

Why do we copy others? As an impressionable, self-conscious teen, I imagine the appeal of copying others is reassurance, and yearning to belong in the cool gang. Jonny from Year 12 says ‘wicked’ all the time, great, let’s all overuse the word ‘wicked’ and watch us soar up the ‘what’s hot/what’s not’ barometer of coolness! Jonny might even let us sit on his lunch table. Behaviour entirely understandable and forgivable given the age of the offenders. But adults? As adults, shouldn’t we have past the stage of cheating and copying others to look cool amongst our peers?

Do you copy others? Do you browse the internet looking for inspiration for your company’s latest blog and take more than just inspiration? Do you pinch photos from Google and use them across your social media? Do you hear someone’s fabulously unique (is there such a thing?) marketing idea, which you take and pass off as your own? Think such actions are harmless? After all, the internet is a pretty big place; what are the chances of the original creator finding out you’ve carelessly swiped their intellectual property?

Copying is human nature, after all, monkey see, monkey do. But there’s a world of difference between copying our parents’ speech patterns when we’re toddlers, to wilfully copying a colleague’s business idea and claiming ownership.

This morning, I read an article online by someone promoting the art of copying. Why? Because, apparently, we’re all too time pressured to think creatively. Far better to preserve our sanity and reduce our workload by thieving someone else’s work and popping our name on the by-line. Oh, the author did suggest we ‘adapt’ the piece of work we steal, so no one can accuse us of blatant plagiarism. Seriously? If ‘creatives’ need to copy others to pretend to be creative, doesn’t this question their entire profession and whether they’re suited to a position which requires creativity?!

I realise I may sound a little naïve here. Ideas are stolen and adapted every day. One glimpse on any supermarket shelf reveals the mimicry that exists between brands. Or a High Street clothes shop with the same designs as a Parisian fashion house, for example. It’s standard practice; business is business, no hard feelings, it’s not personal. Funny, it’s always the person doing the shafting who adopts this particular line. Just because a practice of behaviour is commonplace does not mean it is right or justified.

Stealing someone else’s work is never harmless, and it certainly isn’t flattering. Ask any artist whose had their work ripped off. I understand the temptation to take the short-cut. You spot a competitor’s killer idea, for example, and you want it. Zero effort and graft for you, but look what you’ll gain. But each time you take the elevator and not the stairs, ask yourself how you’re growing as a person. How are your talents strengthening? And what happens when you need to create an idea of your own? Not to mention the word ‘ethics’, a word not often written in the same sentence as ‘business.’ Can you ever justify to yourself stealing something from another? There is absolutely no difference in morality between stealing your friend’s purse and stealing her creativity.

When you take someone’s idea or piece of work, you take a teeny piece of their soul. Originality is entirely unique; no one creates thinking their work will be either stolen in its entirety, or ‘adapted’, so it looks like the original, but no one can accuse the creator of theft. Original ideas are dreamt up in the middle of the night; often causing the artist, author etc, to sit bolt upright at 2am and jot down their original thoughts. Thoughts which are entirely theirs; God given thoughts even.

If you’ve been tasked with crafting your company’s blog, newsletter, website etc, before turning to Google, try accessing your own limitless imagination. It’ll be harder and take longer than pinching someone else’s work, but the more you rely on your own creativity, the better you will become at crafting original ideas. Ideas which you’ll own and be proud of. Don’t be the lazy kid cheating their way to maths success nor the insecure teen wanting to be cool to belong. Pioneer your own path in life and leave the creators, designers, craftsman, artists and performers, whose imagination the world is all the richer for, well alone. Their imagination is theirs, not yours, nor mine, to swipe.

To hear how some of the world’s most pioneering souls opted for the path less travelled, listen to the Off the Ropes Podcast every Friday night from 8pm BST, or subscribe via iTunes or Stitcher.

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