In the space of a few weeks I’ve had my material “ripped off” twice. One instance was OK by me, but one instance was not. The differences open up important questions at the forefront of the new rules involving content, sharing, social media, and copyrights.

Today, ideas spread quickly. Volumes of great information are shared through Webinars, e-books, and social media tools like Twitter, Facebook, and SlideShare. Tracing an idea, insight, or fact back to its original source can be challenging. This is an even bigger issue when these exchanges are occurring among marketing professionals, especially because creating and sharing content has become practically the go-to strategy for driving business and lead generations for many companies. Take creative professionals who make their living from their ideas and content, give them an incentive to share that content openly, and you have a near perfect environment for undue influence and sticky copyright issues.

Like me, I’m sure you have your sphere of influencers. I’ve been fortunate to surround myself with people much smarter than me to nourish my brain. Being influenced by others is a good thing and it’s the reason my peers and I have been sharing our thoughts through (in my case) 300+ columns like these, presentations, and countless conversations. So far, the benefits have far outweighed any dangers or concerns. But as I mentioned, recent events have got me pondering the best ways to manage my future content sharing strategies.

The first instance happened when a student of mine asked me what I thought of their brainstorming session for banner ad ideas. When I saw the list, I asked my student if they were aware of where these ideas came from – or what influenced their ideas. As soon as I asked, they were embarrassed because it was a collection of disjointed ideas grabbed from past and future presentations and concepts I had written about in past columns and had shared with them in conversations we’d had together.

My students felt as though they’d ripped me off and I assured them that they hadn’t. What they had done is something our brains do naturally as we take in, process, and assimilate ideas. I shared with them this fabulous video of Derren Brown and his use of “Subliminal Advertising” to influence the kind of logo and branding advertising execs would come up with for a business he was starting. By manipulating barely conscious cues he provided ad execs, he predicted precisely the kind of logo they came up with. As soon as my students watched the video, they understood how their assembly of my ideas was unconsciously done and felt better about the situation. In turn, I explained how flattered I was, as my goal for the last decade has been to inspire others by sharing my ideas.

Influence Gone Bad

The next instance was not as comfortable for either me or a friend who I “influenced.” Here’s what occurred: This friend shared a presentation on March 1 titled, “15 Secrets of High Converting Websites.” (Follow along and you’ll see why the presentation has since been removed.)

When I saw this presentation, I immediately asked my Twitter and Facebook friends: “What would you do if someone you thought was a friend ripped off one of your presentations without asking or attribution?”

Here’s the backstory: In just two weeks, I’ll be presenting my “21 Secrets to Top Converting Websites” at SES New York. It’s a presentation that took me the better part of a decade to put together. The presentation had received rave reviews as a keynote speech at SES London, including this tweet from @Liz_Gray: “#seskey Unbelievable keynote this morning from @thegrok! Action-oriented, clear and concise. Everyone with a website – test something today.”

I first delivered this presentation in December 2009 at SES Chicago and then recorded it in January as a Webinar for my conversion optimization students. This is where my friend was “influenced” by my presentation. No other copies of these slides were shared anywhere.

I have shared presentations in the past, but since I am now focused on being a professional marketing speaker, these slides are a good part of my livelihood, and my paying clients don’t want them shared all over the Internet. So when I reviewed this person’s newest Webinar presentation, it was a shock to find that “his” slide titles and content, including many of the images, were essentially the same as mine. That’s when I tweeted the question.

The tweet led to quite a firestorm on Twitter and Facebook as people responded. My friend RSS Ray, a.k.a., Brian Offenberger, who had committed this act, was inundated with e-mails and comments on Facebook. You can read some of the discussions on Facebook here. Two of my MarketMotive students who really studied my presentation shared these comments on Twitter:

Gene Gerwin wrote: “Judging from the slides, it’s such a direct lift that I wonder if mere attribution would have been sufficient…”

And Noran El-Shinnawy wrote: “Hey, @rssray here’s my comment on your blog since you won’t approve it (@TheGrok )” In a follow up tweet, Noran added: “INCREDIBLY UNPROFESSIONAL: @rssray rips off @TheGrok ‘s 21 Secrets presentation and passes it off as his own”

The next morning, Brian pulled the slides he shared from his Web site, posted an apology on his blog, and explained how items from my presentation unintentionally ended up in his. We subsequently spoke on the phone.

I asked him to share with me a list of what he learned from the experience. “I had the importance of checking and re-checking work re-taught to me in the most painful of ways,” Brian wrote.

The Future of Sharing

Some people suggested I sue for damages. I’m not an attorney, but from past legal advice I know that you cannot collect damages for material that is yours unless you have filed for the copyright with the Library of Congress. You can have them remove the duplication just by placing the copyright notice on your material and you can prove it was yours first.

These two situations have left me with more questions than answers:

  • Do I feel comfortable sharing my slides any more? I have shared many presentations in the past. Do you?
  • How do we prevent ourselves from being overly influenced by others?
  • Let’s say someone shares a presentation online through sites like SlideShare and copies a slide or two from others. During the presentation, the speaker gives verbal attribution to the original source of information, but written attribution is not placed on the slide. Is that ok?
  • What would you do if you were accused of “copying” someone’s slides? I think Brian handled it as well as anyone.
  • How will copyright laws evolve with the times?
  • How would you have handled this situation?