Copycats - are they really so bad?

I've stolen one or two of Ron's
lines over the years

I often try to be funny.

Sometimes I succeed, other times I fail.  Sometimes my attempts at humour are met with either a polite smile (the equivalent of saying ‘nice try’) or a groan (the equivalent of saying ‘yes, that’s funny, but it’s really stupid’).

Something I’ll often do though is quote from movies.  I’ll never claim it as ‘my own joke’, but I don’t go out of my way to acknowledge my ‘sources’.

Earlier this year I was ‘found out’ to a certain extent.  A line I often use is “You stay classy” which I’ll often say in a particularly ironic manner if I’ve witnessed something particularly UN-classy. 

For example, Serena Williams, the tennis player, lost the 2009 US Open final when she verbally abused a lineswoman.  She unleashed a torrent of  profanity and threats to the lineswoman in a most undignified outburst.  After the event, I posted on Twitter “You stay classy, Serena Williams”.  It got a good laugh… well, as good a laugh as one can get on Twitter.

Using this line is, of course, stealing shamelessly from the film Anchorman. Well, fast forward to January this year: a number of my friends went to see Anchorman at the moonlight cinema and when Ron Burgandy uttered that famous phrase one of my friends piped up and said, “So Dylan stole that line!  I thought he was funny but he’s just copied that joke!”

Well, I reckon ‘stealing’ is a little harsh.  Copying, on the other hand, is entirely accurate.

This got me pondering, is copying, or imitating, really such a bad thing?  It’s something businesses do all the time.  Sure, they may not blatantly come out and say “here’s what somebody else did so we’re doing it too!” but they will often draw upon another firm’s concept and repurpose it for their own use.

This is what Oded Shenkar from Ohio State University writes in his book “Copycats: How Smart Companies Use Imitation to Gain a Strategic Edge.”1

Shenkar claims that firms which "copy other firms’ ideas save not only on R&D costs but also on marketing and advertising investments made by first movers".

In other words, find out what someone else is doing, and do it yourself.

Of course Shenkar doesn’t just blatantly copying.  After all, this can land you in serious legal difficulties regarding patent infringement (just ask Samsung).

A good example of successful copying is German start-up Pinspire.  It’s essentially an exact copy of the latest social media craze, Pinterest.2

However, according to the founder of Pinspire, Karl Jo Seilern, “Of course it's no secret that we were inspired by Pinterest, we saw the hugh potential of Pinterest but we also recognised that they don't offer local content, in local languages and we still see potential to improve the user experience.”

So he copied a good idea, and repurposed it for his own use.  Just like what I do with so many of my jokes!

The Economist also offers a good history of successful ‘copiers’:

History shows that imitators often end up winners. Who now remembers Chux, the first disposable nappies, whose thunder was stolen by Pampers? Ray Kroc, who built McDonald’s, copied White Castle, inventor of the fast-food burger joint. Even Playboy magazine was just an imitator, noted Ted Levitt, one of the earliest management gurus to acknowledge the role of imitation.

Copying is not only far commoner than innovation in business, wrote Levitt in the 1960s, but a surer route to growth and profits. Studies show that imitators do at least as well and often better from any new product than innovators do. Followers have lower research-and-development costs, and less risk of failure because the product has already been market-tested. A study by Peter Golder and Gerard Tellis, “Pioneer Advantage: Marketing Logic or Marketing Legend”, found that innovators captured only 7% of the market for their product over time.

To me, it all sounds a little dodgy.  After all, who doesn’t feel a little annoyed when someone else takes credit for your work?

But maybe it’s like the old saying claims: imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Just bear in mind that the person you’re imitating may not feel so flattered when they see you making money from their idea.

But I reckon making people laugh is ok – even if you’re using someone else’s jokes.


1: No, I haven't read it.

2: Have you seen Pinspire?  Seriously, it's basically identical to Pinterest.  It's like Pinspire isn't even trying to pretend it's different.