The Blurry Lines of Plagiarism, Learning, and Originality
Shannon Cherry posed an interesting question on her blog: how encouraging should she be of people who want to train with her and then essentially remarket her stuff? Should she be a thought leader, or build a brand?
I was perhaps a bit rambly in my response (even citing the Old Testament—Abraham as a persuasive marketer!), but I still think it’s worth sharing here, since the question touches on a number of concepts I’ve explored over the years:
- How much should you cooperate with competitors?
- Is the world grounded in abundance, or in scarcity?
- How does it benefit you when you train a competitor?
Here’s what I wrote:
Shannon, I’ve experienced this tension many times. It’s easier to make my peace with other people getting wealthy (wealthier than I am) from my ideas, when I remember a few things:
1) As someone who describes myself as “in constant learning mode,” I have drawn from dozens of teachers and books over decades, synthesizing what works for me and putting my own imprint on the overall combination–which has quite a bit of original thought mixed in as well. But let’s face it: 80% of what I know and teach owes some debt to someone, somewhere—but not the same someone. So when someone borrows form me as part of their own larger mix, I’m OK with that (especially if they’re considerate enough to acknowledge me).
It would be a bit different if someone took and bottled everything I know as their own. I certainly get teed off when I see other people’s bylines on something I wrote—unless it went out as a press release, and then I see it as a supreme complement (I still remember the bylined NY Times article from maybe 10 years ago that lifted whole paragraphs from a press release I wrote for a client). But if someone takes one or two of my ideas and mixes it with some from others and some of their own, I think they are the legitimate owners of that “marketing salad.” I can’t think of any marketer whose ideas are 100% original; even Claude Hopkins studied his predecessors. Some, like Jay Abraham, Janet Switzer, and Dan Kennedy, may have more originality than most, but they are not working in a vaccuum. I suspect strongly that Dan Kennedy studied Jeffrey Lant, and that Lant studied Melvin Powers, and that Powers studied John Caples and Hopkins, and back it goes, past Lincoln, Jefferson, and Franklin, at least as far as the Biblical Abraham, who used his marketing skills to persuade God not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah if he could find ten righteous people. (Abraham won the argument, but couldn’t find the 10.)
2) I was so enchanted by Alex Mandossian’s concept of “the paradox of syndication” that I put it in my latest book, Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green. This is kind of a bit like Godin’s Idea Virus: you get your stuff into as many places as possible, and it grows for you. A great example of this is Amazon: With the brilliant idea to offer a no-inventory, no-work bookstore to all sorts of mom-and-pop websites in the mid-90s, Amazon became a powerhouse. It was years later before so much of the action moved to Amazon’s own site; in the early days, it spread by offering this no-work profit center to anyone who wanted it. Again, when someone spreads your stuff around, it’s on some level a deep complement. Of course, it’s much more of a complement if they give you credit. I’m a big believer in this; my books typically have long lists of acknowledgments and lots of sources cited in the text. But if your plan is to be a thought leader, it kind of goes with the territory.
For myself, I’ve decided that spreading the idea virus, being the thought leader, is more important to me than getting the glory, since I am motivated by a strong desire to create social change. But the glory certainly feels good! I think Nancy Marmolejo may have said it best in her comment:
Thought leaders don’t ask permission, they go for it. Be the one who makes this a “both/and” story, not an “either/or”.