There can be a fine line between inspiration and plagiarism. It’s a gray area that a lot of Etsy shop owners (and even just creative entrepreneurs in general) are afraid to go near. With such a huge platform like Etsy, it's not hard to come across products from different shops that show eerily similar aesthetics or content. When you're just starting out as an Etsy shop owner, or just a creative business, it's easy to look to successful shops and try to emulate their style or ideas. But try to refrain – because there's a fine line between inspiration and plagiarism, and you don't want to be on the wrong side of it.
Rather, when you’re creating new products or services for your shop, it's super important to make your work stand out from the crowd and not look like someone else's. Not only is this ethical, but it's also just smart. You don't want to blend in, right? By the same token, you work hard on your own business / shop and you want others to respect that. Show that same respect for your competitors, and honor the work they’ve done by being original in your own shop. After many many years on Etsy, here are a few ways I've found to help you spot the difference between inspiration and plagiarism, if you're noticing that line getting blurred.
What is considered inspiration?
definition: the process of being mentally stimulated to do something, especially creative
general ideas + topics
General ideas and topics are tough to claim copyright on. For example, a calendar is a general idea or topic. No one can claim copyright on the grid layout of a calendar – it’s a commonly used format that’s not owned by any particular designer. Just because there are a lot of other calendars for sale on Etsy does not mean you are copying them by creating your own calendar.
audiences, needs, and niches
Creating products for a specific audience, need or niche is not something that can be plagiarized. For example, products for new moms are a common market, especially on Etsy, so claiming copyright on a specific group of people isn’t feasible. You just have to find ways to make your product for new moms unique from all the others.
types of product + delivery
This one is specific to digital products – the format or delivery of the product is another tough one claim copyright on. Tons of shops sell printable PDF planners on Etsy, I am not the first. The more broad the thing you’re pulling inspiration from, the better.
What is considered plagiarism?
definition: to copy from someone and pass if off as one’s own
content + product specifics
The actual content of your products should most definitely come from a place of originality. Do not simply take the exact content of another product and redesign it. This is still considered plagiarism and should be avoided. But this can also be a gray area for some, depending on the product, so here’s an example from my own experience. In the grocery shopping list of my Meal Planning Kit, I can’t fault another shop for using the same categories for their grocery lists, like diary, meat, produce, etc. These are commonly used terms for grocery lists, and of course we’re all going to use the same or similar terms for those. On the flip side, the questions and prompts in my Kid’s Keepsake Journal were drawn from a journal my siblings and I kept throughout our own childhoods – they're specific enough to be original and personal to me. I’ve had an experience in the past where another shop copied these questions verbatim on a similar product. Because I knew this content was drawn from my own childhood, it was obvious plagiarism was at play.
design / layout + mockups
The design of your product is a common place to accidentally plagiarize or slightly cross the line of inspiration. Again, this is a huge differentiator that I’ve built my Etsy shop on – creating designs and styles that had not been done on Etsy yet, appealing to a more gender-neutral, minimalist audience. In the design of my products, I even set out to be different by using tongue-in-cheek titles and bold typography. I’ve noticed this style pop up more on Etsy now, and honestly it’s frustrating. You do have to pick your battles in this arena, and some just aren’t worth fighting. I have confronted blatant plagiarizers in the past — ones where their products can easily be confused with mine. This close of a copy is not okay, and should be confronted.
The same can be said for the mockups or images you use to show what your products look like. When I first started my shop, I noticed most of the thumbnail images in search results were overcrowded, had a lot of white and very little color, and frankly were hard to tell what the product looked like on such a small scale. I set out to create my mockups to use bolder, more saturated colors so they would standout on the search results pages, and use large, easy-to-read fonts to say what the actual product was right on the image, not just relying on the product title shown under the thumbnail. Since then, tons of shops have now switched to this layout for their mockups, making it harder to stand out.
Again, I’ve had to pick my battles with this and most of the time, I let it go. This can be a tough line to draw since there are only so many ways to display the same content in a small square – all the more reason to work hard to make your products stand out and not blend in.
Again, product mockups can be a tough one to distinguish between inspiration and plagiarism – especially with the new trend of using styled stock photography to display digital products. If you notice a lot of sellers using stock photography, maybe try a totally new way of displaying your product rather than risk blending in or looking like a copycat. Or find a photographer that offers some unique layouts or compositions to use – ones that don't look like everyone else's. I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it a thousand more times: make it different, make it different, make it different.
Plagiarism is to copy, and there’s no clearer evidence of copying than the infamous copy + paste. This relates to copywriting, of course, and should be avoided at all costs. Even copying content and then changing a few words is still considered plagiarism. Write everything for your shop starting with a blank screen and a flashing cursor. You can look to other shops to be inspired by what types of content to include, but do not copy that content word-for-word, or even close to that. Create your copywriting from complete originality with your own voice – this is just plain ethical. If you feel uneasy about how close something is (whether it's writing or design or content – whatever), it's probably too close. Change it.
Tips to stay on the right side of the fence.
Stop looking at similar products when you go to create your own. Instead, think about the customer’s point of view and create based on their needs. Be practical, be concise, and be honest.
Create from a place of need for yourself. When you start with a personal need for a product, you can be sure it’s an original and not a copy.
Find your own differentiator. Think about ways you can differentiate yourself and your products. Think outside the box and find ways to fill in the gaps in the market. Even if you have similar content to what's already out there, can you present it in a new way? Provide a new angle?
If you can’t do it differently, don’t do it. When it comes down to it, if you can’t find a way to make your product different than your competitors, I would just drop it all together. You’ll be more inspired when you hit upon that completely unique idea, rather than reinventing the wheel.
Bottom line: Do not copy others' work. If you feel uneasy, it’s probably too close.
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