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How Worried Should You Be About a Copycat at Work?

Understanding the intention behind imitation.

by Kyle Raymond Fitzpatrick
April 2, 2020 | Work

There’s this guy that I work with who is really nice. But there was a moment when it felt like he was copying me.

He was very curious about the clothes I wore, inquired about people and places I posted on Instagram, and chimed in on ideas I shared in meetings, as if there was a groupthink I was unaware of.

This may be normal — but something about the situation was so weird. I could feel my jaw tighten and the back of my neck sweat whenever we interacted.

There was the sense that I was being leeched, absorbed, cast in an office-themed adaptation of "Single White Female."

An illustration of a man holding a smaller version of himself. Rewire PBS Work copycat
Was his mimicry subconscious? Or was he claiming on my look and my ideas as his own?  |  Credit: Adobe

I was initially angry. I’m trying to be my own unique me and he's a copycat. This is a problem...or is it? Why was I so mad about this?

I had no idea what to make of this situation.

To understand the issue, I reached out to experts to find out why people copy people and if this is a problem I need to be cautious of at work.

A subconscious act?

First: why do people copy people? Is this truly a person trying to become another person or is this an innocent eclipsing of two people with similar interests?

Piotr Winkielman, professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego, studies mimicry and pointed me to a clip from "The Office," where Jim impersonates Dwight.

The mimicry in question here is quite overt, if not for fun, and illustrates the root of mimicry: the subconscious.

“People sometimes sway if someone sees swaying trees,” Winkielman said. “This is super unconscious mimicry. These are mindless, automatic actions that are sometimes purposeless.”

“Then, on the other end, there are these phenomena of really smart mimicry like social learning, where companies are mimicking companies, like when Samsung mimicking Apple," he said.

"It’s a very deliberate process of capitalizing on someone’s good intentions or knowledge.”

[ICYMI: How to Work With a Coworker You Can't Stand]

Regardless of the form, mimicry, copying, is a cultural transmission, cultural knowledge in action, as Winkielman explained. There are pros and cons to this, as this is a natural act.

“Mimicry can be flattering and can get you friends,” he said. “But if you do it too much and in blatant ways, people may react negatively, perceiving you as a copycat or a parrot.”

One of the most fascinating aspects of mimicry is this experiment that Winkielman posed: try crossing your legs when sitting with someone else – and see if they do it. If they do, that could point to beta tendencies.

“It’s a sign of submissiveness,” he said. “That someone lacks their own will.”

But this isn’t simply a follower following: this relates to neuron theory, one that alludes to how, at our most basic, there is a state of contiguity, communication that yields association.

“Our brains are super good at learning,” Winkielman said. “Anything that co-curs, occurs together, gets stamped into the brain and some people believe there is a part of the brain that links perception to what we do.”

This is quite literally monkey see, monkey do, the colloquialism brought to life. Mimicking helps show someone that you like them or that you want to be similar, to fit in.

In a situation like mine, perhaps the mimicry at hand was an attempt to get closer, to align, to be united, which is to say: it’s a good thing, despite how annoyed it may have made me.

Copycat versus copyright

There isn’t anything intellectually wrong with copying someone else. Where it gets tricky is if someone copies an idea of yours at work. Is this something you need to protect yourself from in a legal aspect?

Dean Greg Mandel of Temple Law School is a leading scholar on intellectual property law, which is where copying could be positioned.

Mandel saw my situation as nothing out of the ordinary, not raising any red flags as far as legal issues. Why? Because everything in my situation are ideas, nothing fixed or physicalized.

“In general, copyright law protects works of authorship that are fixed in a tangible medium,” Mandel said.

Written works, art works, and even music on a page are all protected by copyright. But copyright does not protect ideas, Mandel said, noting that someone presenting an idea as their own isn’t a violation of copyright law.

Look to clothing and personal style as an example of this: while aspects of a design like a logo can be trademarked, there’s no copyright protection for clothing shape. Mandel highlights Halloween costumes as a great example: a design can be protected but not the shape or function of the garment. 

What this gets at is plagiarism, a copying situation that has been impressed upon us in school. But the reality is that plagiarism is not a legal problem outside of academia.

“People tend to view the idea of plagiarism, of taking someone else's ideas, and presenting them as one’s own as the real violation,” Mandel said.

“That’s what morally or ethically upsets people. People in general then think that intellectual property laws are there to protect us when intellectual property laws aren't designed to protect from plagiarism.”

Sadly for anyone who has dealt with a copycat, copying isn’t a problem one can really take legal action on unless there is hard evidence of the idea and the copy.

[Read: When Does Online Harassment Turn into a True Threat?]

A situation with recorded music, for example, can be the basis for a claim. But something you said? An idea you mentioned in a conversation? The way you wore a hat? How you shook a handshake? These things are likely uncovered, from a legal standpoint.

When it comes to copying at a job, Mandel said that an employer may seek out the person who originates ideas as they may be valuable, thus preventing copycat-ing for business reasons.

For many, as you may recall from an episode of "Silicon Valley," coming up with an idea while under the umbrella of a company may mean your idea is theirs — and this is what you need to be aware of, specifically when working as “work for hire.”

“If I hire you to create a work of art, I as the person who hired you am going to own the copyright,” Mandel said.

“If a big movie studio or TV studio hires people to write a script, the studio owns the script. You have to figure out if you are a work for hire or working on your own, in which case you may be licensing the copyright to them.”

Don't overthink it

While a copycat at work or in life may annoy you, the reality is much less serious: copying and mimicry are natural human processes and laws weren’t designed to protect literally anything that comes out of your mouth.

Sure, yeah, it may bug me that someone saw a jacket I wore and bought it, acting like a younger sibling I didn’t know I didn’t want – but is that a real problem? No. This is perhaps even them trying to connect, to share something.

If anything, getting too precious about copying is problematic because then you’re constantly policing — and that ain’t fun. This was my lesson, specifically in my conversation with Mandel.

“We wouldn't want to end up in a situation where we’re trying to figure out who has an idea first,” he said. “That would quell legitimate expression.”

You have to strike a balance he said, something that I have made a mantra of.

“Establish the proof that this was your expression that came up,” Mandel said. “But also make sure there’s a lot of free flow ideas.”

Kyle Raymond Fitzpatrick
Kyle Raymond Fitzpatrick is a writer based in Los Angeles. He loves dogs, champagne and short shorts.
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