Sooner or later, every blogger and writer suffers that dreadful moment of finding his work stolen. Either websites are offering free downloads of his books or blog scrapers are reposting material without permission.
Content theft is big business. Every month Google receives more than 30 million requests to remove search results that link to allegedly infringing material. Thirty million a month!
The good news is writers have various options for dealing with content theft, and 99% of the time, they will not need an attorney. A little research and a few emails may do the trick.
If you want to discourage unauthorized reposting of your online work, consider the following measures:
- Put a Copyright Notice in the footer of each web page. The form is Copyright or © + date(s) + name of the copyright owner. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
- Adopt a Copyright Policy. Spell out the rules for people who want to quote your blog. A typical policy says something like: You may copy up to 50 words without permission provided you give me attribution, link back to the original content, and do not change the overall meaning or message of my content. Put a link to your policy at the bottom of each web page.
- Link back to your own blog. Put links in your posts that direct people to other blog posts or other pages on your website. Your analytics software should notify you of “ping backs” so you can see who is displaying the link.
- Register the copyright in your web content. Many people don’t realize that you may register the copyright on your blog and website material. There are a few tricks that I cover in this post, How to Register Your Blog with the US Copyright Office.
- Set up Google Alerts. Not just for your name, but for your headlines and perhaps a string of unique words in your posts.
- Investigate technology tools. Various tools help bloggers disable right-clicks, watermark their work, or imbed devices for alerting them of repostings. Anything I write would be obsolete in a week, so check with a tech person about options.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU FIND YOUR WORK ONLINE
If you find sites offering free downloads of your books or reposting your web content, then take the following steps:
1. Contact the Site Directly.
Believe it or not, some people still think everything on the internet is free to use. In most cases, if you email the infringing site, they will remove your material. You may even get an apology.
2. Send a DMCA Takedown Notice.
If an email request does not work, or you are dealing with a site that is offering free downloads or a blog scraper, send a “takedown notice” under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). All writers should learn how to send takedown notices. Like locking your car or home, it’s easy and sensible.
Social media sites such as YouTube, Tumblr, Pinterest, and Facebook have online forms for sending takedown notices. Typically, you’ll find them under links titled Legal, Copyright, Report a Problem, or Help. Here are the links for Facebook and Pinterest.
If you are dealing with an infringing website, then you send the takedown notice to the ISP hosting the infringing site. Go to http://whois.net/ and type in the domain. Many ISPs have online forms for sending takedown notices. If there is no online form, Plagiarism Today has downloadable samples of a cease-and-desist letter and DMCA takedown notice.
3. Notify Search Engines.
Contact Google Copyright Infringement Reporting Tool and request that the infringing site be removed from their search results. Contacting Google is important. You don’t want the bogus sites to appear above legitimate ones in search results.
Once the social media site, ISP, or Goggle receives a takedown notice, it contacts the alleged infringer. If the infringer does nothing, then the infringing material is taken down. End of story.
4. If That Does Not Work
If the infringer disputes your claim, they may file a DMCA Counter Notification. In that case, the online service will repost the infringing material unless you notify them within 14 business days that you have filed a legal action against the alleged infringer. Also, if the ISP is not based in the United States, it may simply ignore the takedown notice. In either of these cases, skip to When to Hire an Attorney.
DEALING WITH PIRACY IN BOOKS AND EBOOKS
Stolen content in print and ebooks is particular upsetting. Amazon has an on-going problem with ebooks intended to trick buyers into purchasing the wrong product. Both Thirty-Five Shades of Grey and I am the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo sold thousands of copies before they were removed from Amazon’s site. Here are some options for ebook authors.
1. Set Up Goggle Alerts.
I asked Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, for his advice. He suggested that “writers set up Google Alerts for their book titles and for unique text strings that appear in the first 10% and last 10% of the book. For example, if a book has a sentence such as James picked up the salamander and gazed at its iridescent eyes… that sentence will probably never ever appear in any other author’s book, so create a Google Alert on it. Writers could create an additional Google Alert leaving the character name out of the string in case someone simply tries to change character names and republish the book as their own.”
2. Contact Amazon and Other Retailers.
If you find an infringing book, then Amazon will work with you to remove infringing materials or confusing knock-offs. Their copyright claims procedures can be found at Notice and Procedure for Making Claims of Copyright Infringement. For other sites, contact them through their website.
3. Register Your Copyright.
If you have not already done so, register the copyright in the work being infringed. You cannot file a lawsuit unless the work is registered with the US Copyright Office. If you threaten to sue, and the infringer searches copyright records and doesn’t find your registration, they may call your bluff.
WHEN TO HIRE AN ATTORNEY
If the infringement continues despite your efforts, then consider hiring an attorney. A cease-and-desist letter on lawyer letterhead may be taken more seriously.
However, I would not hire an attorney or jump into litigation without asking yourself whether it will be worth the effort. Sure, if you sue and win, you may be entitled to collect damages, but your damages (lost sales) may be small and difficult to prove. The infringer may be overseas and unreachable. And litigation consumes money like wildfire, not to mentioned time, attention, and sleep.
TAKE A DEEP BREATH
Before you accuse someone of infringement or send a takedown notice, keep in mind:
- Titles are not copyrightable. If someone uses a title similar to yours, you cannot claim copyright infringement. Sorry.
- Ideas, themes, facts, and historical events are not protected by copyright. If someone publishes work covering topics similar to yours, that is not automatically infringement. Infringement implies close copying how you expressed ideas and information, not the ideas and information themselves.
- If someone is quoting your work for commentary, educational, or review purposes, or creating a parody of your work, that is probably fair use and NOT infringement, no matter how scathing.
- Those sites offering cheap or free PDFs of your book are typically scams that download malware and harvest email addresses and credit card numbers. Anyone who clicks on those sites is unlikely to buy your book anyway.
- Don’t get caught up in a game of whack-a-mole. While it’s upsetting to see your work stolen, the theft may have little economic consequence to you. You could waste a lot of time chasing these low-lifes. As soon as you deal with one, others may pop up. Your energy may be better spent creating new work and finding new readers.
Have you experienced piracy? Have any other techniques worked for you?
An earlier version of this post originally appeared on Joel Friedlander’s TheBookDesigner.com.