If you’re upset about being copied, you’re not moving fast enough

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Photo by Ross Joyner on Unsplash

“Good artists copy; great artists steal.”

Was it Pablo Picasso who made this remark? Or did he steal it from T.S. Eliot, as some people claim?

Either way, it splits the world of ‘makers’ in two: those who hate this sentiment, and those who’ve come to embrace it.

Me? I think those in the latter category lead more successful lives.

But wait.

Copying? Stealing? Surely these are Bad Things.

Sometimes, yes.

But then again, many of our favorite things bear a strong resemblance to the earlier work of others.

Take music as an example. Remember “Come as you are” by Nirvana, or Ghostbusters by Ray Parker Jr.?

Mega-hits that wouldn’t exist if it hadn’t been for (lesser known) predecessors Eighties (by Killing Joke), and I Want a New Drug (by Huey Lewis).

Was it stealing, copying, borrowing, or just being inspired? Whatever it was, I’m veryvglad they did it.

But we’re not just talking about music. The IT industry abounds with examples of someone copying someone else, like:

  • Facebook is an improved copy of MySpace, which in turn was a copy of Friendster (anyone?);

In business, this phenomenon is rife.

Remember the boom of Groupon sites?

Or what about the flurry of brands trying to copy Uber?

Here’s the thing: if you have a good idea, people are going to copy you.

That’s just a fact.

So when it inevitably happens, what do you do? Kick up a fuss, throw a fit of moral (or legal) indignation? Many people do.

And perhaps you agree. Maybe those examples I just gave made your blood boil.

If so, read on; I think I have a few good points that might make you change your mind.

Copying is fundamental to human progress

When a company creates something of value, they usually try their hardest to protect it from being copied by others — whether this means having every employee sign sophisticated NDAs or registering a patent.

And I don’t blame them. For every honest entrepreneur, there are a dozen scammers ready to rip him off.

But there’s also a healthy trend of companies sharing chunks of their work for others to use.

Let’s take Artificial Intelligence as an example. Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of competitiveness around who will create the first strong AI.

Millions and billions of dollars are being invested in the race to develop it, and every company wants to cross the finish line first. I can’t even imagine the perks of being the winner in AI race. World domination, perhaps?

So, it would make complete sense to keep every single line of your AI code secret, right?

Actually, it turns out it doesn’t.

Elon Musk launched a free OpenAI project; Google revealed TensorFlow; Facebook have released a ton of cool open source libraries. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

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How come these guys are sharing their hard work (for free) and letting others capitalize on it?

Because they will be able to capitalize on everyone else’s hard work in the process.

Win-win.

If you have an idea that you’re excited about, do you:

a) Lock yourself in a basement like a hermit, hiding your idea from the world until you’ve cracked it.

OR

b) Share your idea with other intelligent people, toss theories back and forth, brainstorm together — and progress a hundred times faster?

But wait, Tim.

You’ve only used free open source projects in these examples. They aren’t commercial, so none of them are losing money by sharing their work.

Ok, then how do you explain Elon Musk’s “All Our Patent Are Belong To You”?

First, Musk entered the highly competitive car market, going up against giant corporations that had dominated the landscape for dozens of years.

Then, he gave away all the patents that make his vehicles unique.

And has this harmed his success? Not at all.

Originality vs. Authenticity

Got an awesome idea? Good for you.

But guess what — somebody else, somewhere else, has already thought of it.

So there’s no point shying away from an idea because you’re scared it’s already been done; it probably has. It doesn’t matter. That’s human nature.

When Shakespeare died some 401 years ago, he’d pretty much told every tale that exists. Has that stopped the five centuries of writers that followed from rehashing those same storylines over and over again?

We’re all related, and we’re moving forward at lightspeed; repetition is a natural consequence of this.

And even in the tech industry, which is rooted in continual innovation, it’s unavoidable.

That’s why I don’t buy the notion of being ‘first to market.’ It may have been a competitive advantage a dozen years ago, but it won’t help you much today.

Originality is just the luck of the draw — the person who gets in there first, strikes while the iron is hot.

Authenticity, however, is far more impressive.

Those who succeed aren’t those who do it first, but those who do it best.

And if your business is truly authentic, it will feel original.

The absence of copying is called monopoly

Diamonds. We’ve all heard of them. There’s certainly no shortage of them on Planet Earth.

Precious, yes. Priced fairly? No.

Here’s why…

The world’s entire diamond supply used to lie in the hands of a single company — De Beers. Because of this, De Beers could skyrocket diamond prices as high as they wanted and rip off consumers.

Meanwhile, they weren’t contributing anything of value to the industry they controlled.

I don’t know about you, but this story blows my mind — and pisses me off.

Luckily, De Beers lost their grip of the market, but their story should remain as a cautionary tale:

By not allowing anyone else to do what you do, you become a lazy, greedy, money-making machine.

And with no meaningful competition, there is no motivation to improve your product, your service or your prices.

There’s a word for this: monopoly.

The antonym for this word? Competition. And in this context, competition is a Very Good Thing.

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When a bunch of people are running towards the same goal, their entire industry whizzes forward with them, creating continuous progress and innovation. There’s no time to stand still, and those who do get left behind.

And this results in a ton of value for the consumers.

People are afraid of competition because they think there can be only one winner.

That’s not the case.

There’s no way a single business can cater for everybody, because all people are unique, with differing tastes and preferences.

So no matter how overcrowded the industry you’re in, there will always be enough room for those who work hard and move fast.

Copying helps consumers

Let’s talk about Snapchat for a moment.

They were the first company to come up with the idea of short video ‘stories’ that disappear after you’ve watched them.

I tried Snapchat. Although I liked the concept, it didn’t quite work for me as a thirty-one-year-old husband and father. I thought I’d leave it to the teens.

So, if that feature had remained exclusive to Snapchat, I’d never have used it.

But, luckily, Instagram copied it with their ‘stories’ section.

And since I’m a moderately addicted user of Instagram, I now post and watch stories quite frequently.

Later, Facebook jumped on the ‘stories’ bandwagon. And yet, I don’t use their feature, despite being 10x more active on Facebook than I am on Instagram.

See where I’m going with this?

As a social media user, I’m delighted that these platforms are copying one another. It allows me to work out how and where the feature works best for me.

It’s useful for us consumers to have a plethora of similar options: to compare, to experiment, to choose our favourite.

And even when two products or features are identical, there are countless external reasons as to why we might choose one over another: gut feeling, the force of habit.

Perhaps we feel more aligned with one brand’s ethos or simply like the colors in their UI.

We make choices like these every day, consciously or unconsciously: Starbucks/Costa, Uber/Grab, Colgate/Crest.

Wouldn’t the world be a boring place if there was only one of everything?

What if their version is better than mine?

Yup, there’s a flipside to this coin. If their copy exceeds your original, it means you need to up your game.

What’s more…

If something is easy to copy, then it wasn’t hard enough to make it in the first place.

And you can’t build a strong foundation for your business on things that are easy to replicate.

Ok, it’s possible to stay afloat with a simple product that anyone can copy. In marketing, there are plenty of ‘hacks’ to help anyone on this track: exposure, branding, authority, trust, and so on.

But these hacks aren’t unique. So even if you nail them, you can’t just sit back and wait for your paycheck; tons of others people are most likely mirroring every step you take, hacks included.

That’s why it’s important never to become complacent or underestimate your competitors; if you do, they will catch up, and potentially overtake you.

Getting ahead

If you’ve read my previous articles here at Medium, you’ll know that all my rants are based on how we run things at Ahrefs.

We march to the beat of our own drum, and as a result, we’ve managed to carve out a stronghold position in an overcrowded market.

And as our success has grown, so have the number of companies trying to replicate some of our functionalities. We expect nothing less.

But when you compare Ahrefs to competing solutions, you’ll notice that:

  1. There are a few fundamental things that none of our competitors can copy, no matter how hard they try (such as our web crawler, which is the second most active after google, or the way we process clickstream data to get unique insights about search queries).

Yes, people try and copy some of the things that we do. But instead of agonising over it, we channel our energy towards staying one step ahead of the competition.

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So if you live in fear of someone copying you — stop that. You’re wasting your time. It’s always going to happen.

Focus instead on creating a product that isn’t easy to copy. Then, never stop innovating, iterating and improving it.

And remember: being copied is the best validation you can get. After all, imitation is the most sincere form of flattery.

If someone has invested the time and resources to copy what you have, then what you have has a lot of value.

How about your business?

Are you putting your energy into protecting your intellectual property, or are you focussed on innovation and continuous improvement?

I’d love to hear more from you in the comments below!

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Ahrefs Marketing

Insights from Ahrefs’ Marketing Team.

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