What To Do When Someone Steals Your Idea: React Like A Professional

Professionalism Tip

You have what it takes to become a successful freelancer – whether or not someone rips you off. That being said, it can feel like the definition of a professional nightmare: you open a book or magazine to find your story or piece of art on its pages. You hear about someone’s professional accomplishment and realize that they’re gaining from your great idea. But how can you speak up about someone using your professional work product…and when does it make sense to speak up?

1. Stop, Drop, and Don’t React

If you think someone has stolen your idea, the first thing to do is…nothing. Emotions can run high when it comes to attribution, so don’t let your anger get away with you (or stymie a chance for real resolution). The best thing you can do is take a pause and give your emotions and your mind a bit of time to cool off before acting. Make room for mindfulness in your daily routine so that stressful moments like this will find you ready to respond peacefully.

2. There Are No New Ideas

Next, ask yourself if you’re upset because someone has stolen your idea or because they’ve stolen your content. The distinction may be hard to determine, but it’s critical. Nobody can copyright an idea, even if it’s awesome. Besides, there aren’t really any new ideas, anyway. Some ideas are so evergreen that it’s likely you copied them to begin with. Get real with yourself…did the person who’s pissing you off take ‘your’ idea or your actual work product?

3. Do You Even Own Your Work?

The next question is vital for freelancers, who often perform work for hire. It can feel yucky to acknowledge, but often your contract stipulates that your photograph, your article, or your song lyrics belongs to the person who bought it. Double-check your rights before your act (and don’t sign contracts that limit your claim to the work you produce).

4. Ask for Attribution

Often, a good way to start a civil conversation about your copied work is to contact the culprit and ask them to attribute it to you. This will nip 90 percent of copying in the bud—either they’ll give you credit for your words or image, or take it down. It can also feel less scary for people who aren’t used to confrontation, but still feel entitled to take claim for their hard work. Use neutral language and try to take the emotion out of your request.

5. The Best Revenge…

Speaking up is one thing, but there are very few situations in which it makes sense to raise a huge professional stink or take legal action about copied work. If you’re confused about fair use, contact a copyright attorney and act on his or her recommendation. But remember: the best revenge is a career (and life) well-lived. Remind yourself that the alleged copier must feel pretty creatively bereft to have to snag someone else’s work and pass it off as their own…then get your revenge by doing better than they could ever imagine.

Don’t let copycats distract you from the fact that you have what it takes to become a successful freelancer. For more action items to keep you on the path to victory, check out our free ebook: The Essential Guide to Launching a Successful Freelance Career:

Erin Blakemore FOLLOW >

Erin Blakemore is a library school drop-out, historian, freelance writer, and author of the award-winning The Heroine’s Bookshelf (Harper). She dishes about books, history, and channeling your inner heroine at www.erinblakemore.com