I've discovered that there is a sickness spreading wildly through the Internet, a disease which leaves destruction in its wake. It has no known cure. There are no current attempts to quarantine or treat its victims. This terrible illness is copycat syndrome.

The symptoms are as follows:

  • First, the copycat sees something that he/she likes. A warm feeling of amusement mixed with envy begins to fill the veins. I want it, the disease victim thinks. And so it begins. At this point one can turn back, but usually does not.

  • Second, the copycat steals the object of desire from its original intended place of display and places it in a foreign document. Please note that if attribution of the original source is in any way included, this is not copycat syndrome; it is simply admiration, which might or might not be annoying. To be true copycat syndrome, the object of desire is stolen and placed on display without permission from its original author.

  • Third, the copycat is discovered. Sometimes the theft is discovered by the original author of the material; more often it is discovered by a friend or acquaintance of the original author. Please note that in rare cases of this disease, the original author will be accused of being the copycat by a third party, when he or she may actually be immune to this illness, or previously vaccinated.

  • Fourth, the copycat is warned, told off, or in some way alerted to the fact that he/she has been discovered.

These are the four symptoms of copycat syndrome, stage 1. It is now copycat syndrome, stage 2. At this point, the disease could take one of two routes.

  • Route 1: After being given the "treatment" (announcement of "Hey, you know, you copied me!"), the copycat apologizes and removes the offending material. Only rare cases respond to this treatment (note: this is a treatment, not a cure; many of these types tend to be infected numerous times after their first). Most often, this type of copycat does not know it is wrong to take someone else's material, though ignorance is no excuse. Sometimes they know but don't care until someone catches them red-handed. And sometimes they know but don't think the author will care, expecting them to believe that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and agree to take the stolen material down once they find out this is not the case.

  • Route 2: The copycat in some way or another refuses to take the material down. This is the most common progression of the disease in stage 2. It is caused by a mixture of embarrassment at being discovered and irrational hate of the creativity that inspired said theft.

Once it is established that the offender is not going to be nice about following copyright law, several options are open for treatment. None of them are pretty. Be advised that if you are interested in becoming a medical doctor and specializing in copycat treatment, it may get very messy. You will have to wear gloves and tread very carefully from this point on. For the more advanced stages of stage 2, here are some symptoms and their treatments.

  • Symptom: "You can't make me so HA!" You may be issued the taunt, "What're you gonna do about it? And how're you gonna prove it?" These are usually children who don't understand that the laws do apply to them even though their mommies didn't say so or give them a spanking for it. These types will not respond to reason, so don't waste your breath (or typing). Simply threaten them with legal action or other punishment, and follow through. Legal action will not faze a ten-year-old, and is usually an empty threat anyway. If the baby has your graphic on his/her homepage, threaten to write to his/her Web space provider and have the page taken down. If the baby has copied a page out of an encyclopedia and turned it in as original work, threaten to issue an F. That sort of thing. This works sometimes.

  • Symptom: "You copied ME!" Yes, they like to try to turn it around. If you have been copied and someone pretends that YOU are the offender, it is not difficult to prove otherwise. First of all, BEFORE this happens to you, get a registered copyright on important material. If it is too late, or you don't have other proof that you're the original author, it is your word against theirs. Your word is usually more convincing than theirs, since it's likely that the copycat suffers from other related conditions like rudeness and moronitis, which will be visible and easily diagnosed by anyone who comes into direct contact with the copycat.

  • Symptom: "If you didn't want people to steal, you shouldn't have put it online/published it!" There truly are people who think if it's possible for them to steal it, it must be okay to do so. These folks are left without a leg to stand on, and it is funny to watch their torsos miraculously hover for a moment before they fall to the ground. Some people will assert "stealing rights" to your material if you haven't announced that it is copyrighted. These people do not understand copyright law, as anything you've written and put into a fixed form is automatically copyrighted to you. You just can't prove it without a registration. Be prepared for those who think they truly have rights to steal from you; they often honestly think that theft is an acceptable way to acquire ideas.

  • Symptom: "You're SUCH a bitch!" It is an odd phemomenon, but a common symptom nonetheless, when the copycat becomes hostile toward the very person he/she has wronged. When you assert your rights to your own material, you are suddenly being petty, over-obsessing, or just "being a bitch." You see, copycats of this type steal because they think they have the right to, and so when you challenge that illusory "right," they respond as if they were truly violated. There is no known treatment for this except perhaps to point out to them exactly how nonsensical their anger is. This particular symptom often leads to the rare stage 3.

And finally, stage 3 of copycat syndrome--the vendetta. Occasionally, a copycat is so offended, embarrassed, and pissed off about their lack of stealing success . . . that they simply explode, all over the victim. The copycat begins to dedicate lots of time and effort to defaming the person or persons he or she copied, to try to pay the original author back for the pain they've experienced. Some of their actions at this level may include the following:

  • The copycat gets in touch with friends (or pretends to BE his/her own friends), who will then e-mail, write, or otherwise contact the original author pretending they are angry that the AUTHOR copied. They do not listen to reason or believe anything said to the contrary at this point; they are only interested in revenge, which makes little sense because they are "retaliating" against someone who never threw a punch.

  • The copycat projects his/her own feelings onto the victim. If the copycat is jealous of the author's creativity, he/she claims the author is jealous. If the copycat is freaked out that he/she has been outsmarted and caught, accusations are then made claiming that the original author is afraid of the copier. And so on.

  • The copycat copies even more, shamelessly. Sometimes the copycat does this because he/she thinks it will add realism to his/her claim that he/she is the victim, not the copycat, if the original author and the copycat share more items. Often these copied pieces/documents will be accompanied by "these are MINE, don't steal them!" copyright notices and will sometimes mention their original author and call attention to the alleged theft.

  • Finally, the copycat tires of the whole thing and lies that he/she has never heard of the original author. This is sometimes due to a miraculous cure (the copycat has "seen the light" but doesn't want to admit it, and goes on to a life of copy-free living), but is more often due to the fact that some of the threats the original author has made have come through, or the copycat is afraid that they will. This symptom does not often occur; usually, if a copycat stops copying one author, it is simply because he/she no longer has a use for the material, and may copy another as the situation requires.

Please be advised that copycats DO have a disease and need treatment, though there are no 12-step programs available to treat them! Handle them with kid gloves (or, if the need arises, bitchslap them), and don't worry about being infected yourself; copycat syndrome is not contagious.

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