Monday, February 10, 2014

Why Do People Steal: the Headline Thief

After being robbed or violated in some way, I’ve wondered Why me? and Why do people steal? Another incidence happened to me in November, so here I am taking my inventory, wondering if I provided fertile ground for theft and why a person would choose to become a thief. Some thoughts:

  1. The thief is broke, impulsive, mentally challenged, unprincipled.
  2. He’s not resourceful and doesn’t believe he can achieve something on his own.
  3. Stealing affords the exciting, adrenaline-coursing risk of being caught.
  4. Mr. Crook is too lazy to earn money and pay for products and services.
  5. Señor Weasel feels entitled to take another’s property.
  6. Herr Swindler cannot find his car keys to drive to the store, so he liberates things from folks next door.
  7. My pastor suggested, people who steal are evil and derive pleasure from hurting others.
  8. My attorney, now friend, said, “The guy can’t make it on his own.”

It doesn’t matter the reason, stealing is just plain wrong.

In mid-2010 I mailed a marketing piece promoting my writing and editing skills. On it, my headline read, “Picky, Picky, Picky,” because I am. “Being accurate and paying attention to detail are my strong points, especially when details involve correct grammar, proper word usage, and precise punctuation and spelling.” You can see it here (click) toward the bottom.

I chose to market to companies that presented well online, but, nevertheless, had errors on their sites—errors they may never notice because, figuratively speaking, we usually don’t know when our fly is open. But prospective clients investigating their services for future hire might consider them substandard. Hence, I considered these ad agencies, PR firms, publishers, and site developers my target market and mailed my Picky piece.

After the initial response, business stabilized. Then in early 2013, my piece drew an ad agency owner to ring. “Hello, this is [Mr. Ad Man], and I’m looking at your marketing piece. ‘Picky, Picky, Picky,’ said he.”

The following day I presented myself to first meet the account executive who had viewed my Picky, Picky, Picky piece, then the rest of the team. I looked at the project, then immediately started working. Throughout the year, I worked on various writing and editing projects, when suddenly his emails ceased. My writing work was above average and praised, and my charges were below average due to anticipated repeat business, but I think I wasn’t young and cute enough.

After two months of agency silence, I received an 11" x 17", four-color, self-mailer marketing piece for a high-end jeweler wearing a very clever, albeit unoriginal, headline.

“Picky, Picky, Picky.”

“I wonder who produced this,” my friend said, eyebrows raised with a tip of head. Upon review of the direct mailer, it contained the same Error Signature, as I call it, that appeared on the agency’s site.

In an effort to verify the intellectual-property-lifting assumption, I viewed the jeweler’s Web site source code to see if the same company who produced some of the agency’s sites had done theirs. The research was inconclusive, so I set the mailer aside and went back to work.

During the day, the beautiful, expensive jeweler’s piece held a lower priority than a current project, but at night, dreams would haunt me. God I hate it when folks are dishonest. So when nighttime restlessness overtook me, I set my project aside and conducted more research to absolutely ascertain the culprit. I researched, sent emails, made calls, and indeed, it was the suspected ad agency. The silent one had spoken and boldly produced the triple-fold mailer for tens of thousands of residents.

Of all the words in the American English language for the agency to use, they chose mine. I could have considered this action a compliment had I been asked for permission—and paid, but his lack of professionalism, self-respect, and creativity smacked me, and ultimately him, in the face. Why buy the cow…? Why wouldn’t he call and say, “We really like your headline and would like your permission to use it. We have a client with a nice-sized budget and could offer you $500 for it. Would you be willing to sign a document of authorization?” or something like that.

Am I that scary? Well, maybe. Am I that easy to bowl over? Probably.

A designer friend of 25 years who had been with the largest ad agency in our village, said, “Gee, this is a sticky situation. What I’d do, uh, it depends. If he sends you a lot of work, let it slide, let him use it, and just add twenty dollars to each bill thereafter. He’ll never know it. Now if he doesn’t send you a lot of work, it’s just a fleeting thing, what you gotta do is send him a bill for the headline, and then have the proof so you can back it up when he retorts.”

Since the ad agency hadn’t sent business my way for two months and I sensed cessation, I rang my attorney who advised me to “wait a month and see if the guy contacts you and does the right thing. If not, send him a friendly letter stating facts, proof of plagiarizing, and a copy of your thing. Let’s see if he walks the high road.” My attorney isn’t fodder for jokes. He’s bright, honest, and writes well. “But if he submits it for a ‘Best of’ contest and takes credit…well. Call me in a month.”

I drafted my suggestive, non-accusatory letter, based on the two friends’ advice and guided by an entrepreneur and investment specialist who’s a lot smarter than I am, and mailed it via U.S. Post.

To my astonishment, one week later the agency owner sent his response acknowledging that his account executive, the one who’d initially met with me, used my headline. But then he lied, he wrote that he did “not know how he came to use the phrase or if he ever saw your postcard.”

Then he included eight online sites that used “Picky, Picky, Picky,” proving he could conduct an Internet search. Original. If he had one of his employees do the search, they are now advised of his integrity standard.

“Anyone can go online after the fact and find the headline. It does not exonerate him,” said my IT friend, formerly in printing. “Plus, would he have come up with the phrase on his own?”

Probably not.

In conclusion, Señor Weasel wrote that he’d “contacted their trademark attorney and confirmed you don’t have ownership,” and they’ve “been advised not to provide payment for use, time or stress.”

Probability was also strong that he had not contacted an attorney nor been advised.

“In graduate school,” my math-doctorate friend wrote, “students took a problem-solving course. We often talked with each other about different approaches we might take. Some years later, one of my colleagues told me she thought I didn't give enough credit to the people I had interacted with before turning in my results, [even though] I had come up with my particular approach through my own thinking.

“Fifty years later, reading the footnotes in Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis, I realized my colleague had been correct. I had not properly grasped the academic standards for crediting everyone who had even remotely contributed to the work I had done. I sent her a note of apology.”

Attribution and an apology—two things I’ll experience the day I get paid. What ever happened to honesty and professional etiquette?


  1. Hello Auntie, your trial and tribulation reminded me of my own problems trying to get recognition when someone stole work from my blog. and used it as his in the Daily Beast. The editors never wrote back, but they did drop him as one of their writers... and I swear that for a few months one of the writers on the Tonight Show tweaked a few of my more clever sentences and put them in Jay Leno's mouth, but that probably was self-delusion. The lesson I learned was, that on the Internet, not only can nobody hear you scream, it doesn't owe you a damned thing... ( paraphrased from an interview with Lauren Bacall, published in her obituary in today's NY Times }.

    1. Dear Chris,

      What harm would attribution for our work by the Daily Beast or Sandia have caused them? Likely not much. Send us a check or praise us with a byline. Good grief. Why do folks take credit for our work? I cannot understand.

      I love crediting another for his or her work, not only to honor that creative spirit, but to show that we need each other.

      Karma. Sometimes it takes a while, but eventually the dihonest ones will be exposed.

      ol' Auntie


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