Imitation vs Stealing: An important topic for the #emailgeek community

Imitation vs Stealing: An important topic for the #emailgeek community

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but when does imitation turn into stealing? And when is it ok to borrow a piece of code or draw inspiration from a beautiful email design? These are some pretty tough questions that don’t necessarily have clear answers. Nevertheless, it’s a topic that we as a community should discuss as we recently posted an email design which contained stolen code.

Let’s backtrack a bit, late last week we came across a new interactive email on Twitter. We get pretty excited when we find a new interactive email, so we quickly added it to our interactive email gallery and gave the coder huge kudos for developing something this complex.

Fast forward to the next day, and one of my mates who I used to work with and who happens to be a rockstar in the #EmailGeek community reached out to me about an email which had ripped off his work. The blood drained from my face as I read this. It became very obvious that the email I posted the day before was the email he was talking about. I was mortified that I hadn’t picked up on this earlier.



On closer inspection it was clear that this was a straight copy of his code, it even contained URLs that were pointing to his companies servers! This was a clear copy write violation, and I’m sure he could take them to court if he wanted to, although the cost and effort would not be worth it. All I could tell my friend was that I’m sorry for posting the email and that I’d give him credit for it on the site, so at least people would see who developed the original code.

Unfortunately, plagiarism in the email space seems to be way more common and a bigger issue than I once thought. Other email geeks started telling my friend about their own stories of stolen code:

Now, the purpose of this entire website is to inspire email marketers, designers, and developers. Part of that is providing you with access to the code of these emails on codepen. As a curious email coder myself, I’m always interested to take a look under the hood of an email to see what’s going on. And, I’d be a huge hypocrite if I said that I’ve never borrowed some ideas from other designers and coders. I definitely have, and I think it’s pretty common to do so. Being able to easily take someone’s code and play around with it is how I learned how to code emails in the first place.

“Imitation is not just the sincerest form of flattery – it’s the sincerest form of learning.” ― George Bernard Shaw

And that’s the key point that I want to get across. Wanting to take a look at the code of the interactive emails we post on this site for learning purposes is only natural for most of us. The truth is that most people are not talented enough to create an interactive email from scratch by themselves, BUT we could all learn something by looking and playing around with this code. This is how our industry has always pushed the boundaries and moved forward anyway. The same thing happened when responsive design became a big deal a few years ago.

The other thing that we can do to ensure that our emails are always looking fresh is search for inspiration outside of our own spaces. Just because you work in X industry, doesn’t mean you should only look for inspiration from your competitors. Inspiration could literally come from anything – an object, product, ad, magazine, a video game, etc. I think we’d see a lot more innovation and a lot less sameness in the email space if more designers did this.

In summary

1. Don’t take someone else’s work and publish it as your own. That’s called stealing, and it’s not cool.

2. Imitating, copying, playing around with someone else’s code is OK and encouraged for learning purposes.

3. Look for inspiration in different places. Inspiration could come from a product, object, industry, or vertical that has nothing to do with your business.

4. Combine and adapt what you’ve learned during the above process to create something completely new.

What’s your opinion on this? We’d love to know if this has been an issue for you and if you have any other tips for staying creative.

To be fully transparent, we used these great resources when doing research for this article:

  • Stealing, Copying and Inspiration – DSLR Video Shooter
  • How to be inspired without copying someone’s work – Flywheel
  • Creative inspiration vs. imitation – when does copying turn into plagiarism? – artistsense
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