The Story Economy Blog

Idea Thievery at the Flea Market

city flea smallerThis past Saturday, I headed down to The City Flea here in Cincinnati. It’s such a great event: food trucks, music, amazing shopping for vintage and handmade and weird stuff—all set against the backdrop of our beloved Music Hall in a restored urban park. When I’m there, I’m like: hey, this Cincinnati place I’ve lived in my whole life actually has some cool things going for it.

In fact, I saw a bunch of vendors selling Cincinnati- and Ohio-themed wares—everything from T-shirts to posters to mixed media art, highlighting all of the good qualities of the city. I was feeling so much pride that I decided that THIS is what I should write about this week: all of the good that happens when you stick with something others judge as woefully behind the times, and work to re-imagine what it could be. I was just about to snap a picture of some really awesome pieces a vendor had made using a combination of painting and silhouetting familiar Cincinnati landmarks with decoupaged maps. It was going to be my inspiration photo for this newsletter. But just as I pulled out my iPhone to snap a picture, she stood up quickly, and literally threw her body in front of her work. “No pictures please! Too many people try to copy what I do.”

Of course I respected her request. But it was in that moment that I knew exactly what my topic for this week would actually be: the paranoia of ideas being “stolen” vs. embracing the sharing of ideas. Now listen, this is a can of worms. Icky, messy, squirmy worms that are only complicated by new technology and ways of sharing. I usually just ignore the worms. But when I saw that girl hurl her body in front of her canvas, I just knew that I had to look the worms straight on.

Toward an Open Source World

First of all, I’m fully aware that plagiarism is a real thing. I taught college composition for two years, and I caught a handful of students plagiarizing. It’s not cool. It happens professionally, too. It actually happened to a client of mine earlier this year. Some copy I had written for them wound up on an industry blog, passed off as the words and thoughts of the contributor. Not cool at all. My client told them to take it down, and they did.

I make money by selling writing, so I’m hardly na√Øve about rights. It’s why I have an agent who looks out for me and why I have approximately 16 zillion contracts in file boxes somewhere—all pieces of paper I’ve signed that have detailed (sometimes painfully) what rights are mine and what rights I’ve sold.

So, for copywriting/speechwriting/branding clients: 99 percent of time, I will send you a contract that says what I write for you belongs wholly to you. As for everyone else: I’m not going to spend a ton of time worrying about it. I mean, sure, if I came across someone posting one of my newsletters and using it for their own marketing, I would ask them to stop. It’s never fair to steal things and pass them off as your own.

But—and this is the key—there is a difference between pretending someone else’s work is your own, and building on their ideas. So, if you said, “Hey Judi, I like what you’re saying about us living in a story economy. I’m going to call it something else, and write about my take on it,” I would say: “Sure, have at it. The more people writing and thinking about this and spreading the word, the better everything is for all of us.”

If you looked at my About Page Writing Guide and said, “Hmm, this is cool. I think I will create a similar product, based on my approach to About pages,” I would pause for a second and grumble (because I am human), but ultimately, I’d say, “Go for it. Because I don’t ‚Äòown’ this idea. We live in a free market, where ideas evolve and mutate, and that’s where greatness comes from. Plus, if enough of us bring more attention to how terrible most About pages are, ultimately, it can mean more work and possibility for all of us.”

Now, with all of that said, I will still freely admit that I’m in business to make money. I live in a suburb with a house payment, not on a commune where there is peace and free love. So if you are getting proposals from writers and weighing your options about who to hire, I want to win. I want you to hire me. I don’t really want to share the work or money.

But ideas . . . we have to share. We don’t really have a choice. For those of us who are working from a place of deep connection to why we do what we do, that sharing is what feeds us.

In fact, it seems to me that paranoia runs completely counter to that. It stops the flow. It’s na√Øve to say that you can’t be successful if you’re paranoid, because I’ve always heard that Steve Jobs was extremely paranoid about things getting stolen. And well . . . he ran the most successful American company ever. So this isn’t a simple argument. But it does come down to one simple thing: do you really want to be that way? Because what is the fear of your originality being stolen costing you? It could be costing you actual business. After all, I could have been taking a picture of that vendor’s Cincinnati-theme piece of artwork to share on social media and drive people to her booth. But even if I was taking a picture so that I could do something similar, how does that hurt her? She is going to keep doing her thing and building her tribe. I can copy one idea, and even one of her methods of distribution (if I set up a booth at the City Flea too), but I can’t copy her ability or her inspiration. But if she spends all of her energy trying to stop me, what kind of space does she have left to create from? It doesn’t seem like much of an environment for innovation or inspiration.

For me, as a person who makes money by selling something I create, it comes down to this: You can’t steal the way I put ideas together in my head. You can’t steal my ability to spin a story and get at the root of what something is about. Even if I sell you one set of words, or you “steal” one set of words to pass off as your own, I can remake it all again the very next day. No one can steal the essence of who I am and why I do what I do.

But . . . if they take my idea (which is probably built on someone else’s idea) and in the spirit of open source use, make it even better, and then share it—something good has happened that doesn’t take away from who I am. In fact, it probably makes my next idea better. So why would I ever try to stop that?

I believe in crediting people when it makes sense. I definitely believe in respecting rights and licenses. And I believe in keeping the peace at a lovely city flea market and not getting into a philosophical argument with a young artist who is probably just trying to pay rent.

But I also believe in sharing. Because I can think of a lot of good things that happen when you share. And pretty much nothing good that happens when you indulge paranoia.


  • Marcia Layton Turner

    Posted by Marcia Layton Turner on 08/21/13 3:01pm

    Thank you for articulating what I try and convey (generally unsuccessfully, to be honest) to writers who are worried about their work being stolen. You just can't invest much energy in worrying about that! Worry instead about creating. Love your message!

  • Kristi Woodworth

    Posted by Kristi Woodworth on 08/21/13 4:50pm

    I couldn't agree more! In our business, we find that so many people believe they can do what we do themselves, rather than hiring us to do it. Lately, rather than fight it, we have decided to go with it, and turn some of our energy toward teaching people how to tell, save and share their own stories.

  • Christine Robinson

    Posted by Christine Robinson on 08/22/13 6:11pm

    The paranoid artist at the Flea Market needs to read this! Great message!

  • Sandra Beckwith

    Posted by Sandra Beckwith on 08/26/13 2:00pm

    Thanks, Judi. I totally agree with you. And that woman at the flea market? Boy, did she miss out on some free "advertising." How disappointing for her.

    Thanks for this!


  • Please, Don‚Äôt Screw Up My Story |

    Posted by Please, Don’t Screw Up My Story | on 08/28/13 1:28pm

    [...] example, last week, I had an email exchange with someone who didn’t like my Idea Thievery at the Flea Market post. She emailed me to tell me that she was unsubscribing and that she thought my take on ideas as [...]

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