Shield or Sword? Plagiarism and Copyright Law in Business
Shield or Sword? It's Confusing
I see a lot of confusion surrounding plagiarism and copyright among the public and my clientele. For example, many of my clients are pet professionals, and while it may not seem obvious, dog training is a business in which the subjects of plagiarism and copyright come up frequently.
Why Is This Even An Issue?
Most dog trainers learn their craft through taking classes from other trainers, whether in person, from written materials, or online. There they learn information and skills about teaching dogs, and techniques for teaching clients. In turn, those trainers prepare materials for their own students, including lesson plans, handouts, and videos. They may recreate courses from whole cloth and teach them in a new location, or they may synthesize various techniques and develop their own variations; they may even write a book. The reality is that at the core of dog training -- and of many service businesses --are information and education, presented in such a way as can be sold to the business's clientele.
Running a small business is hard work, and dog training in particular is not highly valued by our society, often creating a scarcity mentality -- a view of the business environment as a competition for limited resources. Unfortunately, this mentality can drives some to take shortcuts and take advantage of others' work by copying it and using it as their own. Others lash out and make false accusations of infringement, which at a minimum can create anxiety and confusion, and often can cost hard-working business owners much time and money.
Part of the confusion arises from the fact that one cannot copyright facts or ideas. For example, using a game of tug to reward a dog for performing a desired behavior is a good idea that has been around for a long time and that anyone can use and teach. Writing up a handout about using a game of tug as a reward using your own knowledge and your own words is not copyright infringement even if you learned the idea from someone else; copying someone else's handout and using it as your own most likely is.
What Should You Do?
To avoid running foul of the law or ethics is easy: consider what is fair. Our capitalistic system is built on the idea that everyone should be paid for their labor. For an author or an artist or an academic, their writings/paintings/photos/etc. are their work product; they put their blood, sweat and tears into them and that is how they earn a living. If you copy their hard work and pass it off as your own, without putting in the time, effort and creativity (especially if by doing so you take away potential clients from them), that's obviously not right; you are taking the fruits of their efforts as your own -- in a word, stealing.
And before you accuse someone of copyright infringement, pause to consider whether the accusation is fair. Did you create the thing? Is it your creative work the other person is copying? Or are you simply selling the same or similar information and ideas? Trademarks are a whole other topic that might come into play here.
The best idea may be to consult with an attorney. If someone is stealing your work, by all means pursue the legal remedies, but be sure you are on solid ground before committing to what will likely be a long and costly battle. It's only fair.
This topic was originally brought up by an amazing dog trainer, teacher, and thinker, Denise Fenzi, of the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy (FDSA). If you are a pet professional and are interested in learning more about the legal aspects of the business, check out the two courses I teach in the FDSA Pet Professionals Program here.