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If It’s Worth Doing, It’s Worth Stealing

How the Internet has created a culture of plagiarism, why it’s a good thing—and the secret to copying and being copied without going under.

In September of 1993, version 1 of the program dubbed “the Internet’s killer app” was released. It was called Mosaic, and its prodigy was Netscape Navigator.

A decade later, however, Netscape was long dead, and Internet Explorer had a death-grip on the browser market.

Today, Internet Explorer is struggling to keep abreast of Firefox, Chrome, and Safari.

How could Netscape go under with the Internet’s killer app in its pocket? And how could a group of volunteers almost single-handedly tip the richest, most entrenched company in the PC market out of the browser-share top spot?

The Power Of Plagiarism

The electronic age has made it outrageously easy to copy other people’s hard work. This is most obvious with the bits and bytes representing documents, images, and most controversially music and movies, which can be duplicated in seconds and cost only as much as the disk space they’re stored on.

But it’s not just created works that are being copied. The Internet has given a platform to every entrepreneur with a good idea and the gumption to test it. At the same time, it has given a platform to every entrepreneur without a good idea, but with the gumption to test somebody else’s. So it was with browsers, and so it is with just about any other product, service, methodology, or business model you can imagine.

Which is exactly how we like it

With offline business models, you need bucketloads of green paper to break into most markets. That means less pressure on established businesses to compete and innovate and basically deliver products or services you want. When’s the last time you felt good about a telco, for instance—an industry that’s nearly impossible for newcomers to break into? But on the Internet, the openness and low cost of entry fosters innovation because anyone is free to take a crack at making money off an existing idea. So anyone who wants to profit from it—including whoever came up with it—has to do it the good old fashioned way: with ingenuity and hard work. That seems very much like the way it should be.

To be sure, software patents have tried to short-circuit this process by giving special privileges to whoever happens to patent an idea first. But the whole situation has turned into a long-range Mexican stand-off, with a lot of companies with a lot of patents training their guns on one another, none of them willing to open fire in earnest for fear of being gunned down themselves.

Fortunately, most ideas worth ripping off are either not yet patented, or unpatentable. So anyone with a good idea can try to make money off it—and anyone with a quick eye can try to beat them at their own game.

Some companies even have this philosophy written into their core values. Zynga’s “Innovate on best of breed mechanics” directive is one example. And let’s not forget that Facebook, Twitter, Hulu and PayPal all got started by taking someone else’s idea and doing it better. Come to think of it, so did Google. And so did KISSmetrics.

Not if. When

How does this affect you? Simple—if your idea is worth copying, it will be copied. And if you see a good idea, you should probably copy it too. Good ideas are being disseminated more rapidly than ever through social media—and competition is more fierce than ever with entrepreneurs and startups looking to the web to save them from the recession. It’s simply inevitable that you will be copied, and that you will copy in turn—sooner rather than later.

So, have you come up with a marketing strategy that’s working well? Have you developed a business model that’s raking in the dough? Have you invented a new product or service that is proving surprisingly successful? Someone is already thinking about copying it; and is probably even in the process of doing so right now. If they turn out to be really good at it, you could be in trouble.

Oh no—what to do?

Firstly, have a bit of a party—or at least take a moment to slap yourself on the back. Being copied means that someone thinks of you as a thought leader, an innovator, a guru, or whatever else floats your boat. You’re already ahead because you got there first.

But secondly, realize that you might now be fighting for your life. Make the most of your lead by doing all the things that got you to the head of the pack to begin with. Don’t be a Microsoft, who after claiming top spot in the browser market were then content to coast on their success—adding only the bare minimum of new features and standards support to new versions of IE despite these things being what made it so popular in the first place. Their complacency not only cracked open the door for Firefox’s little toe, but actually fueled its development because people wanted more than IE offered.

You won’t get far on inertia—although the bigger you are the farther you’ll go. If you get complacent you’ll be overtaken quickly. Even Firefox is starting to feel what it’s like to have its heels nipped at, with Chrome becoming many people’s browser of choice, and Safari now available on Windows (who would have seen that coming a decade ago?)

Thirdly, look at how you’re being copied. People usually innovate on the idea they’re copying—and these innovations are often good. The Opera browser innovated on Netscape by adding tabs. Then Firefox copied that innovation because users liked it. Internet Explorer resisted, to its detriment, until IE7. And by the time Chrome came on the scene, tabs were just considered a natural part of a browser. You should take a similar approach, looking at how competitors are innovating on your ideas to get a sense for where you may want to improve your own offering.

But even that’s not enough

Finally, even with a head start and a quick eye, it’s a real gamble relying purely on your technical merits; on your expertise or on the superiority of your service, or whatever it is that people are copying. Because in the end, there’s always a bigger fish, always someone smarter, always someone who can take your idea and just do it better, before you can catch up. Chrome is doing it to Firefox with its speed and minimalistic design. Will Firefox 4 change that? Maybe. But a lot of people have become Chrome fans, and won’t easily switch back.

If you don’t have something that turns your customers into fans, then you’re sunk.

So what is this magic element? Thankfully it’s the one thing that’s almost impossible to copy—your ability to give your customers what they want.

This is your secret weapon, your ace in the hole. As long as you still deeply understand and care about your audience, you will have the edge over any newcomers who copy your ideas. So make sure you don’t get so wrapped up in the “real work” you’re doing that you forget about what sets you apart in a more fundamental way. Make sure you don’t focus so hard on staying ahead that you forget about doing the one thing that can keep you from falling behind: knowing and caring about your customers more than anyone else.

About The Author: This post was written by Hiten Shah, the CEO and co-founder of KISSmetrics.

  1. Tanner Christensen Apr 12, 2011 at 8:48 am

    Simply because your idea/content is copied doesn’t necessarily make it good (or even worth copying).

    You have to consider the countless bots and “feeder” sites that exist merely to make money off of anything they can pull… literally anything, crap or otherwise.

    • It may not be exactly cut in dry like that with stuff like blog post content, but it’s generall true with apps and bigger concepts and ideas.

  2. One great thing about true fans is they will rabidly fight for you! It’s easy to get caught up in innovation and forget what got you started.

    Cost also plays a factor in all this. You can either undercut someone (or be undercut) OR you can position yourself so premium, that price becomes a non-factor. The first example I can think of is SEOmoz and their top level package – at $2000/mo it isn’t cheap. You could get 4 or 5 of their other packages for the same price – and probably get the same overall value, but you wouldn’t be in that exclusive group. Elitist will pay the price to remain elite even if it’s unnecessary/bad business.

  3. David William Apr 14, 2011 at 9:02 am

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately and I’m glad I saw this post. Seth Godin talks about this in Tribes, but with a different spin. It’s not about the credit, its about the movement!

    I like it! :)

  4. Love this article – think it can be summed up in two old phrases…
    1. Innovate or die
    2. Underpromise and overdeliver

    The companies, websites, grocery stores, etc that I always go to over and over are the ones who are simple, provide good value or incredible service and they are generally always testing… It takes different forms, but think about the layouts and product placement at grocery stores – it is constantly evolving and there is a really good reason for that… what works today isn’t guaranteed to work tomorrow and you can’t assume that you know best or that you can optimize only once…

    • Very true. You always have to stay ahead of the curve when it comes down to internet and technology. The second you slow down, everyone else catches up.

  5. “Steal” and “plagiarize” are incendiary words but they do get people’s attention. The fact is there is very little that is truly revolutionary because people have a hard time grasping revolutionary things. What they can grasp is something that is a notch above what they are already familiar with. Whatever we are doing, we need to be that notch above. It doesn’t matter if we are standing on someone else’s shoulders or our own. Yes, you can stand on your own shoulders. In fact you must because if you don’t someone else is sure to.

    It’s not so much about the law of the jungle as the law of the garden. We cultivate on a regular basis because that is what makes things grow.

  6. oh no! I still want to do things on my own but this makes sense and I understand. it just needs a few alterations and the thief can use your hard work. :( Should I use Creative Commons license?

    – Jack Leak


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