August 18, 2022

Dealing With Copycats on Social Media: What Online Creators Can Learn From Entrepreneurs

Remember art class as a child? That feeling of drawing or painting a totally unique piece from your own imagination, only to look over and see your neighbor drawing the exact same thing. The injustice of someone copying your original artwork. Or, what about that brand new pair of shoes you couldn’t wait to wear to school, only to see your signature style ripped off by your friend the next day?

I’ve experienced it myself in the past, and seen it in my kids today. I know this is a universal human experience, and as moms always say, “copying is the sincerest form of flattery,” but it still feels crummy. Even when it’s something as innocuous as an outfit anyone could pick up at the mall, it feels personal and wrong.

This is exactly how I felt when I first saw the news article describing a new cupcakes-only bakery that popped up in Chicago a few months after Sprinkles first opened its doors in Beverly Hills. I felt that same outrage as in my elementary art class, but tenfold.

This wasn’t a piece of paper; it was my livelihood, and a very real investment of time and money we had risked to do something new and groundbreaking. This was an endeavor that people had said would never succeed, and now someone was just copying and pasting our entire creative IP?

Dealing with copycats in the social media world

When it comes to business ventures, spotting copycats can be pretty black and white. With official paperwork filed around LLCs, DBAs, trade dress, and building leases, it’s not difficult to point to the origin of an idea. On the internet, where creators make content that lives on third party platforms, it’s a bit murky—especially somewhere like TikTok, where much of the content is trends that rely on creators copying and iterating on each other.

One of my favorite TikTokers recently took to her channel to share that another creator was ripping off her content. It wasn’t just her style being copied, but literally some of the exact same material. She was, understandably, confused and upset. Having been there myself as a category-defining entrepreneur, I felt compelled to comment. I posted something a wise friend had once shared with me in a similar moment, “When your tree bears lots of fruit, people are going to pick it.” My point being, she was having success and people wanted a taste of it.

Is it possible to be a category definer in the wild west of social media, particularly on emerging platforms like TikTok, where the opportunity to create original content is greater? I think so, but the boundaries are going to be less clear, and the thread back to the originator much harder to follow. How can creators deal with copycats on social media? Take a page from entrepreneurs. We’ve been through it.

What online startups can learn from other entrepreneurs

Accept it

In the world of online business where everyone wants to be an influencer or at least wield “influence,” there has to be a level of acceptance that copying will occur. The very nature of influencing is to encourage other people to behave like you. This is why brands hire influencers to post for them. For example, beauty influencers get paid good money to create content that says, “I love this lip gloss and you would too. In fact, here’s a link to buy the exact same one.”

When it came to Sprinkles copycats, no matter how many cease and desist letters we sent, there was a certain amount of copying we had to accept. While we did establish the first cupcake-only bakery, and many signature design and packaging elements, we didn’t invent or own cupcakes. There were going to be other bakeries that sold cupcakes, or even tried to infringe on our concept of ONLY selling cupcakes.

Accepting a certain amount of copying is part of building a business, and it’s the same for creating content online. It’s also important to remember that in the online creator world, the individual is the product and copycats on social media have limits. While others can try to replicate formats, subject matter, and packaging, the end product will never quite be the same.

Protect it

Protecting your content is a lot harder in the social media realm without the measures you can take with a business. When you’re founding a business, you can tap into legal resources to help prevent copycats. A trademark offers legal protection for a logo, symbol, phrase, word, name, or design used to show the manufacturer of a product. Trade dress protects all elements used to promote a specific service or product. Examples of trade dress include packaging and the atmosphere or décor within a place of business.

Online creators are building a business around their content. And, while there isn’t much to be done from a legal perspective to protect the actual content, logos, names, phrases, and design can all be legally protected from copycats on social media. Creators looking to get more serious about building a business or protecting their content should look into legal resources available.

Innovate it

Your audience is smart, but it’s a big world out there. Not everyone will know you were the first. I wish this wasn’t the advice I have to give, but the only protection is to continue to innovate. It’s exhausting, I know! With Sprinkles, we had to continually innovate on ways to market (emerging social platforms), distribute (cupcake ATM), and create (we even made ice cream!). As a creator in a fast-paced, unregulated online culture, you want to reap the benefits of your creativity, but it can feel next to impossible.

Look at any successful entrepreneur and you’ll notice that the reason they were able to define a category is because they are true innovators. They protect their ideas by innovating with new products and ways to distribute them, and continue to refine their product to maintain superiority. People will always seek out and share the best.

Take advantage of loyal customers

And lastly, cultivate loyalty! If you want people to know you were first, you can’t be the only one to say it. While we hammered home that we were the original cupcake bakery in our brand messaging, we still had die-hard Sprinkles loyalists angry on our behalf over copycat bakeries.

Any entrepreneur can tell you, when it comes to protecting your product from copycats, it can take a village.