Monday, June 4, 2012

the sacredness of ideas

Lately at work, we've been doing a ton of brainstorming. For those who don't know what I do, I work for my boyfriend's social media marketing company,, and they create fun video content and come up with unique marketing ideas for companies. First and foremost, my role is to manage client relations for the company, but lately it's evolved into more of a "Director of Everything," as Jason calls it. Client relations, operations, finance, web design, copywriting, brainstorming - I kind of touch it all.

In the past two weeks though, we've had an influx of inquiries about doing some larger scale campaigns for companies. (Newsflash: this is AWESOME.) And while this has us completely excited, it also has us squeezing every last drop of creativity out of our brains to come up with ideas worth signing off on. Friday for instance, we spent five hours (five!) maniacally generating ideas for several of these companies.

"Ideas" are why I gravitated toward advertising in the first place. My brain has always loved puzzles, and I think of marketing as one big puzzle. You're given your knowns and your parameters, plus a goal you're trying to accomplish, and you have to come up with a solution. (Not to mention at our company, the crazier the idea, the better.) It makes for a great time.

When we brainstorm, it's usually Jason, Sean (IWearYourShirt shirt wearer) and myself. We all gel really well together and feed off of one another. However, one thing I noticed (which was evident not just on Friday but previous instances of brainstorming as well) is that I am always overly concerned with who comes up with a given idea - the author, the brain responsible, the idea owner. Even if it's something that evolves as we talk about it, I always feel this need to nail down who had the integral nugget or the spark. You could say I'm very possessive in that way over my ideas. And it got me thinking: why?

Sometimes when we've mulled an idea over for a sponsor so many times, Jason will forget that I was the one that provided the spark and I find myself getting upset, like something has been taken away from me. On Friday, there were a few times when I would look at our IdeaPaint wall with all the ideas written in marker and I would literally count which ones were from a spark of mine. Ridiculous, right? I'm aware of this! But I literally can't help it. I know it's not the way you're supposed to play with others or be part of a team, but this fierce protectiveness over my ideas is 23 years in the making. I kid you not, even back when I was in elementary school I can remember instances of classmates copying my art project and me coming home in tears about it.

And it doesn't stop there. Once I identified that this was an issue of mine, all these other scenarios started to come into focus about my protectiveness over ideas.

For instance, one night a couple weeks ago, Jason was up late working on work stuff and out of nowhere this thought came to his mind. (He has this magical way of sort of stating life truths in such a simple yet poingant way. I always want words to be so flowery and overcomplicated and he just tells it like it is sometimes. I really love that about him.) He wanted to share this thought with the world so he quickly whipped up a little poster/image in Photoshop that expressed his sentiments. Here it is:

Feel free to check out the SOURCE - the original pin on Jason's Pinterest account by clicking this link.
(2,188 pins.. not too shabby.)

He didn't think to put his logo or name or anything on it, and he just uploaded it to Pinterest, hoping that a few people would enjoy it and like it. Well... he woke up the next morning to find an email from Pinterest letting him no that something like 60 people had repinned the darn thing immediately. Later that day he received another with even more and we realized that it had hit the "Popular" page of Pinterest. At first we thought it was so cool. This thing that he created was resonating with so many people and because of the web you could see it spreading in real time. But then something happened. Over the course of the next few weeks, we started seeing it EVERYWHERE, not just on Pinterest. I would see it in my Facebook newsfeed, shared from random brand Facebook pages with not one link of attribution. Friends of Jason's that knew he made it would start posting links to it on his Facebook page when they saw it. It was popping up in tweets, in other pins, on Facebook pages. It was tumbld, blogged and not-so-subtly reconfigured and reposted.

And over time I started to feel that familiar sense of protection come over me. It felt unfair. There was no credit. These were his words, his design. And maybe something similar had been said before in so many ways, which is fine, but this image came from his brain and his consciousness and yet no one knew. It was hard for me to watch. Then someone sent me a link to a t-shirt designer that had ripped off the exact design and started selling t-shirts to make a profit. The same thing happened with a printing company that started selling it as posters. To me, this was taking things to another level - people weren't just using his content without permission or attribution, but they were making money off of his idea. It infuriated me.

Notice the striking resemblence of the cross-out, the dual color, and the layout of the words. 

I started to wonder if my anger about the whole thing made me a petty person. Was I trying to "keep score" all the time because I was insecure? Or because I was selfish? I don't know. Maybe. But all I do know is that ideas are valuable to me. They are sacred. They come from within.

Most people have skills or talents that they intrinsically link to their self-worth. If you're an amazing cook or homemaker, you probably get more upset than the average person if your pie doesn't turn out just right or if you burn a meal. If you're an athlete and you lose a game of pick-up basketball, you might be in a bad mood the rest of the day because you expected more out of the skill you've spent so much time developing. For me, ideas are what give me that feeling of worth. Ideas are my thing. It could be marketing ideas, or blog post ideas, or gift ideas - it doesn't matter. I love being creative (basically the act of coming up with ideas) and that's a part of how I feel fulfilled and accomplished. So the idea that someone can so easily steal the very thing that gives me purpose and happiness admittedly gets me a little fired up.

As I continued to think about the sacredness of ideas, I happened to pick up the latest article of Inc. Magazine on Saturday (another Jason business magazine subscription that I make sure to steal each month.) In it there is an article titled "The Copy King." The whole thing is about Oliver Samwer, a German businessman that has literally made BILLIONS of dollars from ripping off popular American companies and starting them all over the world. Airbnb, Amazon, Zappos, Fab, the list goes on and on. Not only that, but oftentimes he'll borrow liberally from the original company's web design.

The guy on the bottom right. I could take him, right? (Image Source
With every word I read I felt my blood begin to boil. I don't doubt that this man is smart or hard-working (some would argue he's brilliant for waiting until companies hit their stride and then replicating their success) but I had to ask myself - is that really okay? In the world of business law he's managed to avoid any repercussions, but for me I think it's a matter of integrity. What is all that success worth if you didn't come by it honestly? And yes, I'm saying that in my opinion producing a carbon copy of an existing business is dishonest. As far as I'm concerned, it's theft. Just because you can't touch ideas or see ideas, doesn't mean they aren't valuable and stealing them isn't reprehensible.

Anyway, the list of these instances in my life go on and on. Have you ever seen the movie Flash of Genius? Um.. DON'T. Greg Kinnear plays the guy that invented the windshield wiper and Ford basically steals his design and mass-manufactures it so he spends the entire movie fighting a court battle. Most people probably watched it and thought, "Wow, why am I watching this weird movie about windshield wipers?" I watched this movie and balled. my. eyes. out. (I'm telling you, this issue runs deep, people!)

I'd love to say that by the end of this post I've figured out the root of this issue in my psyche. But the truth is, I'm still not really sure where it comes from. I wish I could say that I know why I'm like this or why I hold original ideas in such high regard. I suspect it does have something to do with the self-worth issue that I spoke about earlier. And probably how much my parents stressed the importance of honor and integrity when I was growing up.

I totally understand that creativity is really just about rearranging/recreating/reimagining things that already exist. And you can use that logic all you want to justify the stealing or borrowing or reworking of anything really. (Lord knows that's especially easy these days with the internet.) But for me, the use of another's ideas is all about the intent. I have a section on my site where I take inspiration from others and recreate them in my crafts. In these posts where I have directly borrowed or been inspired by another's work, I'm very careful to call them "copycrafts." I make no secret about the fact that these are not my original ideas for crafts, but they are my original executions, and in that instance I always try to give proper attribution.

I'm honestly going to try and work on letting go of my ideas just a little, especially when it comes to work. Selfishly trying to claim ownership of something that will end up being a collaboration is really counterproductive anyway. And I'll try to continue to explore my relationship with ideas. However, I can't promise that if that Oliver Samwer guy and I meet in a dark alley, I won't give him a very stern talking to. (Though I might need a German translator. Any takers?)

How do you guys feel about intellectual property? Do you feel a sense of protection over your ideas? Do you think making copycat businesses is an honest way to make a living? 


  1. Great post and rant. I'm very proud and protective of my ideas too, even though we are supposed to be a "team" in advertising. That's really bogus to hear about the shirt, it was a great original design and line...aren't we supposed to have laws protecting our IP for this reason? 

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting, Nick! Glad to know I'm not alone on the possessive train. Maybe it's an advertising thing - we're idea people at the core right? We've got to be a little protective over the very skill that pays our bills. And I'm glad you like Jason's design. If I really go off the deep end, come into a random windfall and accumulate unlimited spare time, I've decided I'm becoming an intellectual property lawyer and I will wield my iron gavel all across the internet.