A friend of mine who is a real estate broker in Los Angeles contacted me in a swivet to complain about content theft. An article he wrote about a neighborhood hotspot had been copied verbatim and published without his permission on another realtor’s website. I understood my friend’s what-nerve reaction. Besides being unprofessional, seeing someone else taking credit for your work leaves you feeling angry and ready to retaliate (like Melanie Griffith in Working Girl).
Sadly, the internet is rampant with clicky-fingered bloggers and writers ready to cut and paste content from your website on to their own without permission. Often the pilfered content is a short article, digital photo, or video. Luckily, there are ways to deal with content theft (and it is not my bruiser cousin Michael Corleone).
Why do people steal content?
Most of us know it is illegal to copy or use another’s creative content without authorization. Mrs. Richards, my ninth-grade English teacher, used to constantly harp on the illegality of stealing someone else’s content and passing it off as your own. It is plagiarism and copyright infringement (see my earlier blog post for the distinction between the two). Unfortunately, stealing from the internet is all too easy due to the simplicity of electronic copying of text and images. Some people are plain lazy when it comes to creating original work, and, most likely, they believe they will not get caught.
Why should you care?
Plain and simple — protect your creative work. Whether someone has copied your content, or copied and modified your content, or copied your content and given proper attribution but without your permission, they should not benefit illegally from your hard work. It is your content; you have the right to control, sell, and manage it. That is the beauty of your exclusive rights under the copyright laws.
What can you do?
If you find your content has been posted online without your permission, there are a few easy solutions. Determine if the unauthorized use is considered “Fair Use” under the copyright laws. The copyright laws permit the use of your copyright-protected work without permission for things like criticism, commentary, news reporting, educational, and research purposes. If you want to learn more about fair use, see this article on photoattorney.com.
If you believe the use of your work is not considered “fair use,” then begin the process of having the infringing content removed.
1. Send a cease-and-desist email
Before you go all formal-copyright-ballistic on the person who has copied your content, send them a please-remove-my-content email first. Simply state in the email you are the copyright holder of the content in question and have not given them permission to use it. Provide a link to your content that has been stolen, the date it was published, and why you are the copyright owner (author, work-for-hire, etc). Then give a time frame by which the stolen content should be removed from their site or you will file a formal complaint (24-48 hours is usually enough time). The tone should be polite, direct, and business-like (without blustery). This process usually works (often without a reply).
I love the idea of asking for a reprint fee like Angela England mentions in her article posted on Jessica Knapp’s Blogging Basics 101. (See what I did there…no copying of the content, only a mention of what the article was about and a link to the article, with proper credit…all considered “fair use” under the copyright laws.)
2. Send a takedown complaint
If a polite email gets you zippo traction, the next option is to take advantage of The Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The DMCA is a law that, among other things, extends the copyright laws and penalties to digital media and the internet. These provisions provide a process for the removal of infringing content, what most call “takedown notice” procedures.
First, you file a complaint (the “takedown notice”) with the service hosting the website with the infringing content. The complaint is a nicely worded request to the hosting service to remove the unlawfully copied content from the website in question. In addition, you can also send the notice to search engines like Google and Yahoo.
For example, my real estate friend would send his complaint to the website hosting the infringing content on the other broker’s website (like WordPress). In addition, he could also send the notice to Google. Website hosting services and internet search engines have policies that outline the removal of copied content. It is a requirement per the DMCA if they want to avail themselves of the “Safe Harbor” protection (see below). Here are two examples of policies for legal removal requests: one for Google, and the other WordPress.
These forms or letters are simple to fill out or write, and contain the following information:
1. Description of your copyrighted work being infringed and where it is located (website URL);
2. Identification of the infringing content and where it is located (website URL);
3. Your contact information — name, address, telephone, email;
4. A statement that the copyright owner (you, or the agent authorized on your behalf) did not authorize the infringing use;
5. A statement the information in the takedown notice is accurate; and
6. A signature of the copyright owner or person authorized to act on the owner’s behalf.
Once the hosting service has been properly notified via a complaint, they have two choices.
1. Technically, the service provider is infringing the copyright laws by hosting a website with pilfered content. But the DMCA provisions provide them with immunity from copyright infringement lawsuits, something called “Safe Harbor” under the copyright laws, provided they take certain steps. They must take reasonable action to remedy the infringement by removing the infringing content. Failure to do this means loss of immunity. Invariably, when presented with the potential of a complex copyright lawsuit or avoiding liability, the web hosting service will almost always comply with a takedown notice demand.
2. If the web-hosting service or search engine does not remove the infringing material, and instead believes the complaint was filed in error, they can respond to the complaint, refuse to remove the content, leaving you to pursue a copyright infringement action.
If the material is taken down, the website host will notify the person who posted the infringing material that they have received a takedown notice. The person accused of the infringing act can then file a counter-notice to dispute the allegations. The website host will then consider the circumstances and if the copyright owner has not initiated formal legal proceedings in ten days (which hopefully will not be needed), the website host will restore the content as required by the DMCA.
One thing worth noting, as Helen Sedwick pointed out in The Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook: The Step-by-Step Guide to the Legal Issues of Self-Publishing, DMCA abuse exists, usually by those seeking to silence critiques or other unwanted content. If you receive a DMCA notice you believe to be in error, dispute it and request the website host to repost your content.
What not to do?
The Shame Approach
If you want to look petty, resort to shaming the infringer by blogging on your website, or posting comments to your Facebook groups about how horrible the person is for copying your material. Shaking your internet blogging finger at the person will only inflame the situation, and may, depending on how deep you go into angry-Wolverine mode, set you up for a defamation lawsuit. (If you want to know more about defamation, see my earlier post).
Other things to consider?
Duplication Detection Software
If theft of your content happened once, it will happen again. Be proactive. Set up a search for stolen content using duplication detection software. Here are a few tools worth checking out.
1. Google Alerts scans the internet for your stolen content, then notifies you. The great thing about this tool, it is free.
3. Copyscape also searches for duplicate content, but unlike Google Alerts and the others above, it requires a fee.
4. Another premium service is Content Rescue.
Trackback and Pingback Notifications
These alerts do not really inform you if your content has been stolen, but they do notify you if someone is commenting on your content (trackback), or they are linking to your content (pingback) from their blog or website. Here is a brief article about the difference between the two notifications. Be aware that trackback and pingback notifications tend to be mostly spam, so moderating these notifications to look for someone who might be copying your content without your permission can be laborious and not worth your trouble.
We writers work hard at creating content. No one should be allowed to take credit for our efforts and words. Unfortunately, our cut-and-paste internet world encourages content theft. Thankfully, the copyright laws provide relatively easy (but somewhat time-consuming) measures for protecting your creative content.
All information provided in this article is general in nature and for educational purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice or create an attorney-client relationship between you and me. I am a writer, who is also a lawyer, helping other fellow writers learn about publishing law. Consult a qualified lawyer in your jurisdiction for all legal opinions for your specific situation. You can read our full legal disclaimer below. Or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.