When Is Copying Not Stealing?

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Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery so the saying goes.  In the workplace, the concept of imitation, let’s start calling it copying, is a slippery slope.

Some believe that when it comes to processes, forms, procedures and much of the nuts and bolts of running an efficient enterprise, there is not much new in the world.  Those are the ones who say, “No need to reinvent the wheel, let’s just use what has been done in other places and use that”.

But wait.  Is it OK to look at an organization’s employee handbook and borrow liberally from it?  What if that organization spent thousands on attorney fees to ensure it was compliant?  What if an employee team worked for months on the handbook and believed their work to be the best in the industry?  Permission to “use” the work that has already been done is the right thing to do.  With permission all good things happen.

The “gravy trains with biscuit wheels” for copying are the activities related to benchmarking and best practices.  Benchmarking is when you compare your metrics to others that are comparable in as many ways as possible.  Poor results for your organization mean it’s time to see what others are doing to find ways to improve.   Best practices are the highly documented ways that others do something.  Most are so proud of what they are doing that they provide the informal license for others to do the same thing.  Probably not copying because implied permission is usually the case.  If in doubt, permission will once again release you from the guilt of copying.

I once had someone send me an email of thanks because she had read one of my books and she believed it had changed her life.  It was so meaningful for her she made twelve copies of the complete book for all of her friends.  She literally stood at the copier and reprinted the books.  Although flattered, that is called stealing in the form of copying.

The Internet has changed perceptions about copying.  If something good turns up as a result of a Google search or is posted on a site like SlideShare, does that provide tacit permission to use the content?  Maybe, maybe not.  Again, a slippery slope where gaining permission or citing the source will always the best way to proceed.

Truth is, lots of times, others can tell if you are copying.  If all of a sudden you seem a lot smarter than usual, or your graphics in a presentation are a step change better than what they usually are, or your work was completed a little too fast your colleagues will be suspicious about copying.  Ask any professor about this rule of thumb about rapid improvement that defies logic.  Again, citing sources will keep you out of trouble.

Learning how others do things and making good use of that knowledge is fine.  Stealing is not OK.

Stealing is a sin, literally, and at work stealing is slightly easier to define than copying.  Stealing can be part of the culture and it still takes place all the time and can make life miserable for any one around the thief.  The most pernicious form of stealing is to take credit for someone else’s idea or contribution and claim it as your own.  Yet it happens all the time and the worst offenders are insecure supervisors.  No one wants to work in a place like that.  Why come up with any good ideas if someone else is going to take credit for it.

Copying can help an organization if done with integrity and permission.

Stealing can ruin the culture of an organization, cause turnover, and inhibit innovation.

Know which is which.

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