As you may know, I frequently have to deal with new Virtual Assistants (and sometimes not-so-new Virtual Assistants who damn well know better) who have stolen or plagiarized content from me. It’s my policy to give folks one chance to make things right. Beyond that, I hand it over to my intellectual property attorney. If I am particularly offended by the thief’s attitude and lack of accountability, I let folks know about it here on my blog.
Recently, yet another new VA had content on her site that belonged to me. Now, as I’ve said before, I don’t go out of my way to hunt for this stuff. But when it comes right under my nose, when they have the balls to steal from me and then register to belong to my community, that’s a personal affront. She eventually made things right, explaining that her web designer is the one who wrote up her content and she had no idea he was taking verbiage from other VA sites. She thought it was funny when he emailed her to take a look once it was done. As she read the home page, she thought to herself, “Wow, this guy sure knows a lot about the Virtual Assistant industry.”
She hoped that this hadn’t hurt our professional relationship in any way.
I could shine her on and be all fake and phony and tell her, “Oh, of course not!” But that would be a lie.
Once you steal from someone or do them harm in some way, they are naturally going to be distrustful of you. I mean, I don’t know you from Adam and this is my first experience with you? If you didn’t demonstrate integrity and common sense in the first place, what reason do I have to think you will in the future? And to be completely honest, “my web designer did it” is what they ALL say. That excuse is only ever really the truth maybe 1% or 2% of the time. It’s not my problem to figure out which is the case.
Life is too short to waste your time on people who have broken trust, particularly when you have no prior relationship with them in the first place. Why would I want to have a relationship with someone I felt guarded around and like I’d need to keep looking over my shoulder with them? Personally, I wouldn’t. Not when there are millions of other people in the world to be friends with who don’t start our relationship out by stealing from me. You are the one responsible for creating my view of you as someone who is untrustworthy.
Now, I do appreciate her efforts to mend the relationship. But she’s going to have to keep in mind that having made me wary of her, it might take awhile. Who knows, it might not happen at all. I don’t feel any obligation to extend any extraordinary benefit of the doubt to people who start our relationship out like this. It’s just too much energy.
So the real answer to her question (and I write about this here because there are lots of people out there who need to hear this) is that yes, it very much affects your professional relationships when you steal from people or engage in any other unethical conduct. Sure, people can make mistakes. But when you make a mistake, you still have to accept the consequences of your actions. And that might include the fact that you have cost yourself some opportunities and relationships.
PS: For the 1 or 2 percent of folks where “my web designer did it” is actually the case–web designers are not copywriters (generally speaking). Whether they took the content or you did, you are still responsible for what’s on your website. No one knows our industry like VAs so if you marvel at how much someone who isn’t a VA knows about our industry, chances are they really don’t. They just took stuff from other people. Write your own content. Or hire a real copywriter. Either way, anytime someone writes something for you, flat out ask them if they took content from any other sites. And if you find out that a web designer or anyone else writing on your behalf simply took or plagiarized someone else’s stuff, make sure you inform them loud and clear that that is copyright infringement, that it is unethical and illegal, and they have opened you (as well as themselves) up to legal liability.
And by the way, there isn’t one good reason you can’t come up with your own, unique content. In fact, I’ve written a very simple, comprehensive guide that walks you step-by-step through the process of crafting your very own unique and compelling marketing message. It’s called “Understanding Your Value.” Get that workbook and you’ll never have to “borrow” from anyone or use tired old industry rhetoric ever again.