The Original Copycat

There’s an old saying (expression) in English, “Imitation is the highest form of flattery.” To imitate means to do what someone else does, to copy them. Flattery is when you compliment someone, when you say something nice about them. The expression means that doing something the same way as someone else has done it is like paying a compliment (saying something nice) to the other person — you thought what they did was so good, you decided to do it yourself.

Not everyone agrees with this positive view of imitation, however – that copying another person is a good thing. The term copycat refers to a person who copies another, but is almost always used in a negative way, to emphasize the fact that the person has stolen someone else’s idea. Record companies and movie studios, for example, certainly do not consider the pirating (illegal stealing or copying) of their copyrighted (legally protected) songs and movies to be a compliment.

According to a recently published book, The Knockoff Economy: How Imitation Sparks (Starts) Innovation (Creativity), sometimes being a copycat can be good for creativity and the economy. For example, in the world of fashion design, it is not possible to copyright the look of a dress or a piece of clothing. So when a designer like Gucci creates a beautiful dress, almost immediately there are people who are creating knockoffs of that dress. (A knockoff is an imitation product that looks just like the original.) This causes the designers to come up with new designs frequently, since their old designs can easily be imitated and sold by other people. Knockoffs also create a certain kind of free advertising for a product: More people see what the product looks like and have positive opinions of it (because if it weren’t any good, why would you imitate it?). In fact, a 2009 Harvard Business School study found that women who buy knockoff purses often decide later to buy the real thing.

The same is true in the world of cooking. It is not possible to copyright a recipe (instructions for making food). When one restaurant creates a fabulous- (wonderful) tasting new dish (type of food), other restaurants may copy it. In order to be considered original, chefs (professional cooks) are constantly coming up with (inventing) new recipes. Often these new recipes are based on or have their beginnings in older recipes, so that the creativity comes from adding or changing some element in the original.

Of course, we are not talking about simply stealing someone’s property or taking things without paying for them. But under certain circumstances, imitating or copying what someone else has done can be a good way of spreading new ideas and making them better.

Have you ever copied someone else’s idea in a way that made it better?


Photo credit: Gucci Knockoff Dress, L’Hedonista, CC

UPDATE: I want to be very clear that I am NOT condoning (giving my approval) to any kind of stealing of people’s ideas or goods (things they sell or own), either physical or digital (e.g. audio files, ebooks, PDFs, photos, designs, etc.). I’m not even saying I completely agree with the authors of the mentioned book about whether certain things that aren’t currently (at this time) protected by copyright (such as fashion and cooking) should not be. I’m only summarizing the author’s position. I’m against any sort of taking of things that you don’t own just because you can, legal or illegal, in the name of “imitation.”  Just wanted to make that clear…

This entry was posted in Books and Reading, Life in the United States. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to The Original Copycat

  1. Hilario says:

    Yes to eclectic, not to kleptomania, ethics must be always above aesthetics, human diverse evolution was made of a mix of human need’s coverage and to environ adaptation. Creators are just mediums in the middle chain, endowed people to receive and to pass on. Nothing comes from nothing itself, there were others behind nothingness.

  2. Dan says:

    Good morning Jeff,

    I just got up. Working the night shift.

    As I am writing it’s 2.37 P.M local, 5.37 A.M in LA, 8.37 PM in Hong Kong.

    Right, it is often used in a negative way. I link this word with the recent shooting at the movie theater in Aurora where i first heard it. Sad story.

    Or I often read it in connection with the never ending controversy over the smart phones between Apple and Samsung.


  3. tania says:

    Hi! In Romania, Navy Day is a national holiday that takes place on August 15 since 1902.
    So today we celebrate the 120th Navy Day thanking to all our sailors from all ships.

  4. tania says:

    Hi! Last year I saw a movie similar with the Leopold and Loeb case.
    As I had not heard about Leopold and Loeb case I could not see the link.
    Very dangerous for the young people to think or to believe they are superior.
    All our children just play believing they are Superman, Spiderman or a very famous hero, all are chiefs, all are in power…
    I wonder who are going to work when all our kids love only the computer.

  5. Peter says:

    Jeff,my man
    You are going about it in a wrong way.
    The article you just mentioned has just put a positive spin on it.
    The truth of the matter is , designer glasses ,clothing ,dishes ,and so on are too expensive for most people to afford , still ,psychology speaking, people like to be recognized or associated with those highfalutin brand-name products. That is how the whole idea of knock off product started ,the need to be viewed as a memeber of elite in a given society :))
    Some of the brand-name replicas are so similar to the genuine ones that nobody can’t tell the knock off from the original one unless they run a very thorough examination.
    As you might know, to counteract ,the brand name componies usually add sth to their products that can’t be duplicated due to the cost involved or some delicasy ,for example , pieces of diamonds and gold on Rolex or some engraved name or shape on purse zippers ,and so on.
    To me,unlike what article says , it totally damages the credibilty , reputation and profitibility of designer products.
    It is a known fact that People always tend to pay lees money for better quality.
    When a knock off comes to the market, specially for females’ products . A large number of people go nuts:) and rush to buy the knock off product. With less money they get the recognition they seek. Why? Simply because it is cheaper , nobody can tell , and above all , even if you spend a lot of money and buy the original ones,still, everybody assumes that you carry fake ,why bother ?
    See ,it is counter advertising
    Every year ,designers loose a lot of business due to the large lunch of knock off products.
    Nowadays , every single woman wears say Gucci sunglasses. Who is to say which one is genuine ,which one is fake. Unless, you go out of your way and shows every single person you meet the part that proves the geniunuty of your purchase. It is sounds a bit obnoxious , doesn’t it?
    My mom, herself, wears Gucci and Rayman sunglasses ,morover,she carries that expensive purse brand that has an exclusive pattern on it . I mean, a brownish checkers pattern on it. You know the one with brownish criss-crossed lines on the purse that all women ,at least the ones I know , go nuts over it the minute they see just a glance of it in a store window display.
    I can’t remmember the name of the brand. It always slips my mind.
    However, my mom owns them but , btween you and me,all of them are knock-offs
    She will kill me if she finds out that I revealed her most secret of her life.
    Sigh ,women!!!
    I can’t ever understand them
    Their obsession with brand-name products never ends.


    The ragged:))

  6. tania says:

    Hi! I have seen many, maybe too many young people with just high school but loving the computer very much they want to work only in this field.
    And the other activity fields? I think Dan, our blog friend, touched this problem.
    I think it is a social problem for our future.
    We all want to be at least better, richer, but the reality does not agree with our children dreams.
    I am really sad thinking about this problem.

    Very, very interesting the Leopold and Loeb trial.
    Thank you, dear Jeff.

  7. kurumi says:

    Hi everyone

    As for learning foreign language or anything, almost all of my knowledge has been created by copying previous somebody’s ideas. I input them and change them into something different in me and try new things. Without copying, I would never have been able to do things like this.
    Of course ESLPOD included.I can’t thank enough.
    But when it comes to knock-offs… I think it is a kind of a matter of a pride. Indeed copying often goes toooo much!! As long as someone who create something let ppl to take his or her idea,it’s okay I think. But if not ,it would be called a crime.

  8. el gatufo says:

    Jeff, I do think this is a very interesting subject that our society doesn´t think enough, just to protect the creator´s ideas or works
    as a rule of behaviour everywhere and for every one.
    In our dayly life there are little things that have been teached by our friends, parents or our own societe that let us improve about
    lot of subjects and as soon we try to do something useful we use to have good memories about them.

    Watching my mother first and after Cuca the way they did their housing chores it has been enough to me to do it the same way
    they use to do it.
    Nearly everything about cooking has been an imitation to me.
    Even the way of doing several other things have been an imitation in my life as I have been ever a watching person with a quite
    good memory for different subjects I could be interested, at least I do think so.

    I agree with you absolutely Jeff about your last Update, even having my conscious not so clean as yours but I do know you
    are absolutely right about this subject.

    Thank you dear Jeff.

  9. tania says:

    Hi! I remember when I was a pupil I liked to imitate my teachers (their accent of speaking, their gestures). I was dreaming to have their scents, clothes, shoes, bags…
    Or, when someone told us about the places visited… I was dreaming to visit those places.
    Or, when someone told you how interesting was his job. You want to be like him, to imitate him, to have his chance, not to steal him.
    All children imitate other children how to speak, how to play…

  10. tania says:

    Hi! Do you know what it is very funny in my country?
    Our teachers are afraid that their rich pupils are more fashionable, more trendy in fashion than them.

  11. tania says:

    Hi! We want to imitate the Jeff’s English accent. Is it a crime?
    Yes, the imitation is a way to progress in many activity fields.

  12. tania says:

    Hi! Reading on Wikipedia about “The Knockoff Economy: How Imitation Sparks Innovation” by Christopher Sprigman I agree with his ideas.

    “Sometimes sharing an idea is more valuable than monopolizing it.”

    “Far from killing creativity … the industry is prospering.”

  13. tania says:

    Hi! I think our dear ESLPOD teachers are sharing their ideas with us than monopolizing them.

  14. tania says:

    Hi! “The freedom to copy , and to improve on a good idea is what makes it go from good to great.”
    “It provides inspiration to others.”
    “Great innovations often build on existing ones – and that requires the freedom to copy.”

    Thank you for this new book.

  15. tania says:

    Hi! It’s Saturday evening and…I miss you all.
    I have seen “The Hunger Games”, a 2012 movie, with the action in a post-apocalyptic world with issues like poverty, starvation, oppression.
    You mentioned it in ESL Podcast 802. Being a 2012 movie I was curious to see it.
    It is not my style. It frightened me.
    But reading on Wikipedia about this subject , I have found that “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins received a number of awards :
    “Best Books of the Year”2008,
    “Most Exciting Ending”.
    It was listed as the 33rd best book for children.

    So, a sincere thank you.

  16. Betty says:

    Dear Jeff

    Thank you for this highly intelligent article, it gives me a chance to read something highly intellectual.

    I am a 100% copycat.  I can copy something from 1% to 95% likeness of the original.

    I try to copy native English speakers how they speak.  I probably get 1% right.

    When I say ‘manual’ my daughter says it sound like ‘manure’.  I am very scared when I have to say some English  words; examples include ‘sheet’, ‘beach’, ‘soup’.

    Sometimes I hope I can implant a microchip in my brain which can help me speak English or any language like a native.

    If the computer expects can put a chip into a robot and make them speak like a human, I am sure they can put a chip into me to make me speak like Jeff or Lucy.

    I copied my tutor’s beautiful Chinese handwritings when I was perhaps 7 or 8 years old.  Her beautiful handwritings earned me a lot of praise.  I enjoyed writing very much probably because I loved the look of the beautiful Chinese characters.

    I can copy handwritings but I cannot copy speakings.  I think a lot of actors and actresses can copy speakings to the exact but struggle to copy handwritings.

    This must be a research project for some scientists.

    If you are a clever scientists reading this message and finally come up with something which earns you lots of money, just donate a handsome amount to this website.  There is no need to mention my name, I really don’t care who steal my ideas.  I have no intention to become rich and famous.  I am contented to have this place for me to write some English and a health body and mind to learn something day by day.

    Thanks again, Jeff, I have enjoyed learning more good English since I discovered your website.

    Betty 😉

Comments are closed.