First, let me caveat: I fully support competition and I think it's awesome when people are inspired by other businesses. There have been so many flooring-related Etsy shops killing it long before me, but I'm not talking about these folks in this post. Today I'm talking about shameless, unapologetic, blatant copying of exactly what you do and how (they think) you do it. The first time this happened to me on Etsy, my products were not just ripped off, but the entire listing verbiage was literally copied and pasted. My photos have been used, my product info and care instructions have been copied to a listing about a material that the shop wasn't even selling. Even after watermarking and branding photos, Be There in Five has been photoshopped out. And now, despite our policing of BTI5's intellectual property (IP), there's still a constant peppering of copies across Etsy, Amazon, eBay and other major e-commerce sites. As frustrating as this is, I've had to learn to protect what's mine, understand there are things that can't be all mine, accept it, and move forward.* However, this did not happen overnight, in fact it probably took me at least a year to be [somewhat] at peace with it. You may not be able to prevent the copycats, but I promise you can stop letting them affect you. For me, going through these 5 stages is the only way I know how.
STAGE 1: RAGE
First of all, you are entitled to be angry. I feel incredibly emotional even writing about this. When I say I've moved on, I mean that my frustration on this topic has been minimized to a constant low simmer, but if I think too much about it I'll find myself in a rolling boil that makes me type furiously like I’m doing now. Here's the thing; this situation is so deeply frustrating. I get it. When you watched an idea grow from a thought you had one night when you couldn't sleep to a real product you built with your bare hands to what ultimately becomes your sole source of income, you hugely resent the people that skipped steps 1-100 and are profiting off of your blood, sweat, and tears. You'll probably want to get in contact with them or send them a nasty message right away, but don't. Wait a minute. Take a step back, be proud of yourself for having an idea so good that someone wanted to copy you, and follow me through the next 4 phases. Or, if you need to vent, feel free to e-mail me, as I have held back a lot of my color commentary for the sake of something I've heard called the high road. Moving on.
STAGE 2: DOUBT
There will come a moment where you panic and think, OMG THIS ISN'T PROPRIETARY ENOUGH MR. WONDERFUL WOULD LAUGH IN MY FACE WHAT AM I DOING. When someone can easily copy what you're doing, the thoughts may cross your mind that the work you put in wasn't worth it, that you aren't doing anything cool or different, that your pricing will never be good enough, etc. I will say, those are good questions to ask yourself. This is why competition is healthy because it makes you constantly reevaluate and prevents complacency. So lean in to the doubt for a moment as an exercise in self-reflection and ask yourself how you can continue to stand out. Instead of instinctively dropping prices (DON'T!), ask yourself who your market is and commit to uniquely serving them. If you are being undercut with price, are you delivering additional value? If they are producing faster, can you differentiate your quality to warrant a longer wait? If your answer is yes to these types of questions, don't worry. I've seen a lot of shops come and go really quickly, because when they skip steps 1-100, they often tend over promise and under deliver. They think they can do it cheaper, faster and better than the original without realizing that the original maker probably set all those parameters for very good (and heavily tested) reasons. So determine if there's any validity to your doubt, do more of what makes you better, and move on from this phase. After the handmade shops start copying, the big manufacturers can come along (whose scale is a whole different conversation), so the earlier you define and implement your brand/products' positioning, the better.
STAGE 3: ACT
Once you get your confidence back, you have every right to take action and police legitimate infringements where you see fit. My first piece of advice would be to first try and determine what is and is not a real threat, because this can be a very draining and often fruitless process. Copycats by nature want to take shortcuts, but the handmade marketplace is not a forgiving platform for people that want to half-ass their customers' experience. So before wasting the energy, look into how many they've sold, if they have good reviews, how long they've been doing it, etc. If you're noticing real threats, there are a couple of things you can do before jumping into #4.
- First, figure out if you have something truly proprietary: Even before you look into registering IP, an important thing to understand is that in the US, common law copyright protection begins at the creation of an original work of art (or literature, music, etc.). So depending on how much of an art/design element there is to your product, you may fall under this umbrella of basic protection. The bad news is, this is really hard to enforce. The good news is, this can (and should) spook the seller because you are entitled to pursue further action. Etsy advises people to first take up issues of intellectual property directly with the seller, but that can be pretty hit or miss. If they're already unethically ripping you off, the ole moral compass probably isn't going to start pointing due north based on a passionate but respectful Etsy message. But you can try with a carefully worded note about your copyrights and point them to anything in direct violation of Etsy's policies as a starting point.
- Then, if you know you've got a total ripoff on your hands of something that you have legitimate ownership of, you can report infringements via Etsy. Be careful with this because you don't want to cry wolf or accuse a shop of something they didn't know they were doing prior to contacting them. Etsy does take these really seriously and will take particular listings down if you have substance to back it up so report wisely.
STAGE 4: PROTECT
Once the copying got bigger than Etsy, I was really anxious to get legal protection because I felt like the bigger players on Amazon, etc. wouldn't take me seriously. If you're at the point where you want the grounds to send cease & desists, just set some $ aside and go talk to a lawyer. Sometimes I forget the value of a human being simply explaining something versus agonizing over 37 browser tabs all saying something different. I don't know enough to use this forum to educate you on the nuances of trademarks, copyrights and patents; even the experts acknowledge there's a vast grey area when it comes to IP. I will tell you though, I have registered a handful of Be There in Five's trademarks, and there are two things I urge you to think about prior to going down this road:
- When it comes to trademarks, they have to be filed separately AND paid separately by category. You can't get one overarching trademark to own something across the board, similar to why there's Dove soap and Dove chocolate. So you can see how this can get expensive fast, especially if you want to make apparel and home goods and jewelry and own the name in e-commerce and so on. Think about everything you plan to do and across what categories and ask yourself if that kind of investment will really pay off.
- The second thing that's important to know is that the owner of the intellectual property is the one that has to police it. So as exciting as it was to get my trademarks registered, it is less than exciting (actually it's quite anxiety producing) to troll the web looking for copycats profiting off of my ideas. Yeah, some of them go away, but then they'll pop right up under a different name, and it can be a really disheartening cycle. Until you're a huge company with a legal department, I don’t always think this is the best use of an entrepreneur's time/energy.** What is a good use of your energy? See next point.
STAGE 5: ACCEPT/INNOVATE
Acceptance is a powerful thing. Competition is inevitable, and generally speaking, competition is good. Not everyone you come in contact with will operate in the most ethical of ways and it can be maddening. But an idea is one thing, execution is another. Have a strong brand, know your audience well and don't waver based on what other people are doing. Whenever I have a moment of panic about people undercutting my prices, I think of how I'll pay $20 for a MAC lipstick instead of a Wet 'N Wild one that's $1.99, even if it's the same shade and even though the MAC store is next to a Walgreens. Put yourself in the customer's shoes and remember that branding, packaging, selective distribution, perceived quality and the customer experience are often more impactful than price. We make these decisions as consumers every day, and as a consumer, I don't want companies eliminating other brands entering the game. I'd much rather have brands up their game by better communicating their unique value to me.
Secondly, after going through this process, I realized I was missing a pattern that was far more important than the copycats multiplying. They weren't selling my items until they were at (or past) the point of being popular - meaning they had already been out for a while. I had a solid lead time to innovate, be first to market, brand everything and reach my customer base before temporary copycats or low-cost industrial rug companies ripped it off. This was a breakthrough moment for me that I wish I had learned sooner. It's not always about eliminating the copycats, it's about being better and faster.*** I have gained far more from my time spent making myself stand out than I have from taking copiers down. You certainly have the right to be mad, you have the right to police your assets, but I truly think the best way to protect yourself is to be the first to innovate.
And lastly, as Herman Melville once said in a book I never read, remember this: it is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.
Footnotes for any trademark infringers reading this:
*I've accepted and moved forward but I'll still shut you down
**Generally speaking, I don't think spending all of your time policing is a good use of energy, but I still have plenty of energy to shut you down
***I believe in being better and faster, whilst shutting you down