We’ve all heard that imitation is the best form of flattery. When someone copies your social media posts or outfits, they like what they see. If they’re imitating you, they are indirectly praising you. But at what point does imitation become too much? How much copying is acceptable and falls within the realm of fair use? Find out when imitation is the best form of flattery and when it’s not. (Estimated reading time: 12 minutes)
“Art only begins where imitation ends.”— Oscar Wilde
You were probably told in school that copying others’ work is bad. But that didn’t stop some students from leaning sideways to peek at their neighbors’ tests or copying a classmate’s homework.
The folly of youth can make us falsely believe that we won’t get caught or that the consequences of our actions will be minimal. But, if a crafty student is found out, they pay a heavy price – a failing grade or even expulsion if it’s outright plagiarism.
Once we step outside academia, we’re left to our own judgment and the judgment of others. Unless our creations are protected through trademarks, copyright, or IP law, your ideas, style, words, and content are up for grabs. No questions asked.
One would hope that people are guided by an ethical framework that stops them from stealing others’ ideas, but that’s seldom the case in this dog-eat-dog world. As a creative, I’m familiar with the frustration of knowing someone used your ideas and made them their own.
It bothers me when I see it happen to other artists. Last year, I watched an illusionist put on a show-stopping performance in my town. He did everything you would expect to see in a magic show – levitation, disappearances, sleight of hand, sawing an assistant in half. The audience was enthralled by the magic and stood up and gave him a standing ovation.
I was one of the few who didn’t applaud because I recognized that much of his performance was a copy of the illusions performed by my favorite magician, whom I’ve admired for many years. The lines, jokes, and effects were straight out of his shows.
My friend, who was standing up and clapping, noticed my stoic demeanor and asked me what was wrong. I expressed my annoyance with the rip-off performance. She suggested I view the ‘copycat performance’ as an homage. “Imitation is the best form of flattery,” she said. “If he’s copying him, it’s a sign of respect and regard. No one wants to copy you if they think what you produce is rubbish.”
She had a point. If someone copies your business, website, social media posts, and outfits, they like what they see. If they’re imitating you, they are indirectly praising you.
But at what point does the imitation become too much? How much copying is acceptable and falls within the realm of fair use?
We need to be able to draw a line between when copying is no longer flattery but feels more like stealing. Regardless of the copycat’s intention, it matters how the person being copied feels because they invested their time, heart, and soul into their creative projects.
Why do we imitate people?
Imitating others is an innate human trait. Before we learned to read, write, and count as children, we absorbed new information by modeling the actions of those around us. Infants and toddlers learn essential habits like sleeping, eating, and speaking from their parents and caregivers. They even learn from watching TV.
If you’re a parent or have children around you, you’ll notice them keenly observing and looking for cues on what to do and say. You might have caught them brushing their hair like you or talking into it to imitate you speaking on your phone.
It’s not just children who are naturally prone to imitate – adults do it too. Studies show that we subconsciously mimic the gestures of people we like, a phenomenon known as mirroring. Have you ever noticed how synchronized your gestures and movement are with the person you interact with? That’s mirroring at its best.
Mirroring is more pronounced when we’re with people we care about, like a partner or a close friend. Tuning our actions and even our moods to others can be traced back to early humans. Mirroring others played a crucial role in demonstrating cooperation with clan members.
More honored, revered, and influential individuals were considered examples in society. Followers had to adopt their behavior and sometimes their fashions to show respect.
For instance, if a leader wore an amulet as a decorative accessory, the rest of the group would have to wear one too (unless the amulet indicated their higher status).
Science explains mirroring in communication through the presence of mirror neurons in our brains. They allow us to simulate not just people’s behavior and actions but the emotions and intentions behind their actions.
For example, if you see someone smile, your mirror neurons for smiling activate, creating the same sensation in your mind without you actually smiling.
Mirror neurons allow us to understand and empathize with each other; they can also cause us to pick up on negative emotions through social contagion. When ideas, attitudes, and emotions spread from a group through imitation and conforming, we call it social contagion.
That’s why we tend to laugh more at sub-par jokes in a comedy show — because everyone around us is laughing. It can also cause us to protest even more fervently when surrounded by those passionate about the cause. When destructive, it can spread extremist ideologies, copycat shootings, and harmful beauty trends like too much plastic surgery.
Keeping these psychological and biological mechanisms in mind can make us more aware of our tendency to imitate others and better understand those who imitate us.
Does originality really exist?
“Originality” is a word often used to convey “inventing something that the world has never seen before.” It’s the product of one’s ingenuity, creative impulses, and knowledge. But the truth is that novelty does not exist. We’re essentially doing some combination of these three things; reuse, reduce, and recycle.
Mark Twain’s autobiography supports this viewpoint. The prolific writer believed there is no such thing as an original idea because every topic on earth has been analyzed and written about. Therefore, originality is a myth.
“We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope… We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely, but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages,” Twain wrote.
Does this mean that no creative ideas are original in the truest sense? Yes, and no. There are original ways of presenting ideas, concepts, thoughts, and philosophies based on our unique personalities and experiences. But the actual subject upon which this creative expression is based is not original.
We see this in all art forms, including storytelling. In Christopher Booker’s 2005 book “The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories,” he says that there are standard story plots found in all literature: “The Quest,” “Rebirth,” “Rags to Riches,” “Comedy,” “Tragedy.” These are tied to cultural myths, philosophy, and history passed on from generation to generation. We re-tell these stories to preserve our wisdom and identity.
Authenticity: A better way to imitate others
Just because originality in the truest sense isn’t real does not permit us to copy and present other people’s work as our own. German author Helene Hegemann said in an article that, while there may not be such a thing as originality, there is authenticity. Even if we imitate others, we should strive for authenticity and make what we imitate our own.
Authenticity in self-expression is paramount with the advent of the internet. We’re saturated with content to which we all have easy access. Every day we’re bombarded with new creations that drastically reduce our chances of developing content that appears unique and one-of-a-kind.
Before the internet, people used to copy ideas, fashion styles, inventions, and designs. But in an online world, it can be as subtle as copying bios, building identical websites, following the same connections, or using people’s social media themes and ideas and passing them as our own. Eventually, we discover that being authentic is the only way to stand out because savvy followers will pick up on it.
Go ahead and search for inspiration and get influenced by what’s out there, but always ask yourself what you can do to put your unique spin on it. What add-ons, improvements, enhancements, iterations, and repackaging can you do to make it a product born from your unique imprint? You may not achieve originality by doing this, but you’ll undoubtedly achieve authenticity.
When imitation is the best form of flattery
In some instances, the phrase imitation is the best form of flattery and is appropriate. Here are four of them:
1. It ensures security and survival: The instinct to copy others has been found in different species of animals. Animals use mimicry for survival and protection. In the case of humans, imitating certain behaviors like following rules and regulations, for example, ensures our safety and that of others. Learning social skills and appropriate behavior makes others feel comfortable and positive in our presence and ensures we get along and establish rapport.
2. It bolsters innovation: Our propensity to imitate makes possible what anthropologists call cumulative culture – the long-term development of skills over generations. We may not need to understand the practical reason behind mining a cave or carving sculptures, but if copied with fidelity, these inventions morph into iPhones made with minerals from the caves and buildings with bigger sculptures. Like a snowball, these conceptions keep rolling and getting bigger.
3. It passes on traditions: Rituals and traditions that carry meaning and significance to those who follow them are worth imitating. Not only do people get to preserve their heritage, but it also bonds people to one another because of their shared culture. Whether it’s a priest pouring water over a child’s head in a baptism ceremony or singing a national anthem before a sporting event, copying what was done in the years before can bring joy and comfort.
4. It fosters creativity: Having people you admire and who have achieved feats you dream of achieving someday can be a massive source of inspiration. When channeled properly, it can jumpstart your creativity and motivate you to do something new while modeling the basic techniques of your idol. If you combine everything you learn in a way never done before, you’re in a good place. This glue that binds the different concepts comes from your own ideas.
For instance, Oprah Winfrey said that she always wanted to be like Barbara Walters until she realized she couldn’t be her. But, she could undoubtedly learn from Walters and infuse her journalistic skills with her style and intentions. Actress Judy Garland highlighted this truth when she said that you should “Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.”
When imitation is not the best form of flattery (and is inappropriate)
Sometimes, imitation doesn’t seem like a compliment but feels like thievery. It might be worth examining your situation and intentions if you need more clarification on copying another person’s idea. Here are seven scenarios to watch out for:
- You’re insecure. Feeling unsure about what you offer can cause you to prefer using someone else’s idea. But if you are always imitating, your trajectory will never be greater than the person you’re copying. It will always be a shadow of theirs.
- You lack a sense of self. You have yet to explore your individuality and creative potential, so you try to fill that space by following someone else’s exact steps.
- You’re jealous: We often copy others because we want what they have – money, fame, attention, or career opportunities.
- You’re lazy: We may copy people outright simply because we’re lazy or time-crunched. We might desire a quick-fix solution to avoid investing the time and effort to develop and build on original ideas.
- You’re obsessed. Sometimes we get so enmeshed in our target’s life that we want to live exactly as they do. Fans of celebrities have gone as far as changing their diet to eat like their favorite stars or even getting plastic surgery to look like them.
- Your growth and individuality are stifled. If others try to force old ideologies and lifestyles on you that don’t align with your values and goals, you need to make that clear and do things that feel authentic to you.
- You know it’s going to harm the creator. If you copy someone knowing it will harm them somehow, imitating them is not okay. Even if it does not result in a loss of sales, you’re infringing on their self-expression, which can feel like an insult and outright disregard for the hard work they put into their success. You may not have broken any formal laws, but you did break ethical ones, and that will seldom turn out in your favor.
How to deal with someone who is imitating you
When you realize someone is copying you, it’s easy to get furious. But before you confront them, it’s worth taking a step back and being strategic about your communication. No matter their intentions (and if they believe that imitation is the best form of flattery), you have a right to ask them about their actions and stop them if you can. Here are five ideas:
1. Check your legal rights: There is a chance that the copycat could be breaching copyright laws, and if that is the case, you can bring that to their attention.
2. Keep calm and carry on: If the copying is something you can let go of and does not impact your work or mental health, it’s best to ignore them and carry on. Realize that others copying you does not diminish your uniqueness and that the copycat can’t detract from your confidence and self-worth.
3. Speak to the copycat: Tell them you’ve noticed their behavior, especially if you think that copying is not malicious. Tell them you’ve noticed the similarities between your work and ask them if it was their intention. This may make you uncomfortable, but it can stop the copycat if they know you are onto them.
4. Safeguard your ideas: If you have new ideas and ventures in mind, keep them to yourself. While you may be tempted to tell everyone about it, you’ll protect yourself from the copycat by keeping it private for as long as possible. After you’re ready and you launch, everyone will know that it was your original idea.
5. Cut them off: This is the last resort if you haven’t seen any change in their behavior, even after conversing with them. Block them on social media and avoid contact. This may be the only way to deal with narcissists, who will deny they copied you. They might even try to make you look like you’re the one who copied them. Instead of losing your mind, move on and pick your battles wisely.
As you go through this process, surround yourself with a supportive community of people who respect your individuality. They’ll give you the courage to stand up for yourself and deal with offensive imitators. Keep being yourself, and don’t allow them to silence your voice or question yourself.
There is no one like you. There has never been, nor will there be again, anyone like you. Your perspective and experiences are yours and yours alone. How you see, hear, and touch your surroundings is unique, so make the most of what makes you different and bring that into everything you do. Show the world who you are, and it will reward you with success and deeper relationships.
All my best on your journey,
Question for you: Do you believe that imitation is the best form of flattery? How do you feel when someone copies you? How much imitation are you willing to tolerate?
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