Several months ago, an employee left my firm to launch her own design business. I recently discovered that not only has she taken images of my work and called them her own, she has also lifted most of the text on my website, including my services page, almost word for word. I am beyond upset—especially now that clients have seen their images on her website and are asking me for an explanation. What do I do?
Dear Copied Cat,
First, I know how frustrated you must feel. You have worked so hard to build your name and portfolio. Having someone take your work as their own is incredibly violating.
It is possible to protect yourself, but it is likely messy and expensive. You can certainly hire a lawyer to stop her from taking your work. That said, the legal expense will be significant, especially if she decides to fight you, and what looks like a slam dunk case may not, in fact, be as easy to win as you might expect. Depending on how (un)specific your copy is, you may or may not be able to protect your content. As for the images, your agreement with your photographer (and their willingness to protect their image from use by your former employee) will determine whether or not you can force your former employee to take down the photos of your work. In addition, while architects can protect their designs with a formal copyright filing, it is not so easy for interior designers to obtain similar protection. (That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, but I’m guessing you did not here.)
On top of the expense of legal action, there is always the chance that you will be seen as a bully or just sour grapes at having your former employee go out on her own. You might be seen as the aggressor rather than the victim should you decide to sue her to protect your work.
So here is a radical thought: Go the other way. Celebrate the fact that your former employee has taken your work as her own. Acknowledge her role in the project while making it clear that she was under your direction and tutelage. Take credit for the fact that you are the master designer here and that she is, as yet, the underling. Set your frustration and hurt aside and simply take credit for what you have created by owning the story as yours. You do not do that by saying, “Hey, that is mine!” but rather by saying “I really enjoyed designing this project. Your help in drafting (or purchasing, or managing) was wonderful in bringing my design to life.”
As for co-opting your text and your services, that will be a bigger challenge if you have not yet made your process iconic—a process as unique to you as a fingerprint. If you have taken those steps in building your business, copying your “one thing” is the very definition of derivative and is not likely to be effective for your former employee unless she aims to be your clone. Imagine, for example, that harnessing the intricacies of color is what defines you most as a designer. Perhaps you have an hour-long “color primer” as part of your process with clients, along with a specific color presentation. Oh, and you get paid for this work specifically, both in dollars and decisions, getting approval for the color story first before anything else. Your website talks about the importance of color and how you have built your entire business around it. If your business is similarly singular, simply copying and pasting will not prove fruitful.
If, on the other hand, your website focuses on how much you appreciate the beauty of design and your love of creating wonderful environments, then goes on to say how easy it is to work with your firm—sorry to say, it’s a lot easier to replicate with success. Here’s a good rule of thumb: If the opposite of what you say cannot be true—you would not, for example, talk about your love of ugly design or your firm’s terrible service—then your messaging has only told me what has to be true of all designers, and therefore nothing about you, your art or your design business. If this is where you find yourself with your former employee, consider her plagiarism a wake-up call to do better.
Today, you are not allowed to hide behind platitudes and colloquialisms. Your design business must strive to be iconic, and to talk to the smallest viable audience—the one that deeply cares about the why, what and how of your design. If you can get there, you will be in a category of one—and a category of one has no room for pretenders, no matter how much they try to steal from you.
Sean Low is the the go-to business coach for interior designers. His clients have included Nate Berkus, Sawyer Berson, Vicente Wolf, Barry Dixon, Kevin Isbell and McGrath II. Low earned his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and as founder-president of The Business of Being Creative, he has long consulted for design businesses. In his Business Advice column for BOH, he answers designers’ most pressing questions. Have a dilemma? Send us an email—and don’t worry, we can keep your details anonymous.