Plagiarism and Tea Ecommerce

Last week a fellow tea entrepreneur emailed us with a question.  We had never spoken before, so he wasn’t sure how to approach us about a very sensitive issue.

He had been searching for a map of Shi Feng Mountain and noticed that some of our photos and content appeared to have been lifted from our website without our knowledge or consent.  Our content was being featured on JAS to promote one of their Long Jing teas.  It looked remarkably similar to what we have on our Long Jing tea culture page.  It really irritated him to see this (us, too) because he does all of his own writing, photography, and programming for his website.  He’s had his images lifted to other sites as well.  I’m sure many other entrepreneurs can relate.

Plagiarism is an enormous problem for people doing business online.  It takes a lot of hard work and costs a lot of money to do your own research, take photos, and do the writing that goes on your website. Plagiarism is the opposite of hard work. It’s a crime of laziness. Competition among online tea merchants is fierce because the entry point for a basic website is very low — throw up a site, find a supplier or two, it’s not hard. Creating a unique website, by contrast, takes constant effort.

As egregious as plagiarism is, it brings up a larger issue facing all of us in this industry. The tea industry, especially in the US, often feels like a small town where what you say or do can come back to bite you. But what do you do when you see something that isn’t right? Do you say something and risk the backlash? Our friend debated whether or not to contact us.

In the end he decided to speak up. He didn’t want to intrude or come off as a “web policeman” and apologized in advance if we had an agreement with JAS We don’t, and we appreciate the heads up. We work hard at sourcing and we put a lot of effort into researching the story behind each tea. Publishing that on our website is our way of promoting our producers and bringing them out of the shadows and into the light where they belong, so that people can connect with them and have confidence that the teas are authentic. It’s an essential part of creating a market for these teas.

Unfortunately, putting all of that information out there means that others can copy/paste it. That’s a risk we’ve decided to take. We share this information openly with our wholesale and brokerage customers, in fact we encourage them to use it if it helps them promote the teas they buy from us. But when we see someone using our information who doesn’t have a relationship with us, then we need to put a stop to it, because they’re using that information in a false way to trick people. That undermines us, the producers, and the open sourcing model we’re trying to create, not to mention the information itself. Being a small company we don’t have a lot of time to devote to combing the web looking for this kind of thing, so we really do appreciate it when someone gives us a heads up.

But back to the question.  What do you do when you see something that isn’t right? It reminded me of the blog post that Austin had just written about leadership in the tea industry.  In my opinion, honesty, integrity, and openness are prerequisites if our industry is going to flourish in the right way.  More and more customers are doing a lot of research on the web before they buy, and they are demanding ever-higher standards from the companies they buy from. As our friend mentioned during our conversation, “the web is a surprisingly small place…even smaller for tea merchants in the US, and I think the only way to keep it on the up and up in terms of intellectual property is to work together.”

Leadership is work. Leaders in this industry are going to be the ones who do their own research, question what they find, and present the most accurate, honest account they can about their teas. Being a leader means doing this constantly, always questioning, always communicating, never resting. We are after all creating art, something that has never before been available, at least not outside of China. The shady marketing, half-truths, and outright deception that characterize much of this industry should be downright offensive to us. They should make us angry enough to speak up.

Speaking up is to deception what sunshine is to mold. Speaking up raises the bar and makes us better.

Let’s clean house.