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What Should You Do If Someone Steals Your Work?

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How do you feel when someone steals your ideas?

At some point in your freelance career, you may find success in what you do. Unfortunately, a common indicator of success is the percentage of people who try to copy, rent or steal original content from you. Realistically, this has likely happened to you before without your knowledge.

I’ve been frustrated several times. Occasionally I’ve come across a complete copy of one of my original website designs, something I find less flattering.

You would think that this would get easier over time. It doesn’t. It’s nothing short of an injury to your hard work. Knowing that someone else is profiting on your behalf and at your expense is a royal pain and a serious threat from a business perspective. 

Knowing how to prepare, identify, handle, and respond to these types of copyright infringement is quickly becoming one of the most important skills for any serious business owner.

How to prepare

Make sure to include at least the following sentence at the end of your creations, replacing your name and year with the first year your content was copyrighted, your legal name:

Copyright 2011 your legal name. All rights reserved.

Legalize

If you just leave things as they are, you are using what some people call “poor man’s copyright”. What you are missing is an enforceable copyright. 

To do this, you must submit your copyright to the US Copyright Office. Because some types of intellectual property such as websites are constantly changing and adapting to requirements, you may have to resubmit your copyright after every significant change, or simply resubmit every year. The costs are low, but the benefits are significant.

You also want to make sure that you have a business relationship with a lawyer who can represent you. If you’re a formal business, it’s not time to find a lawyer when things are falling apart. 

You want someone who is knowledgeable about your business and is willing to stand up for you should you end up with a serious copyright infringement. Regardless, you need a good small business attorney.

The psychology of influence

The basic copyright term for your content, while legally helping you out, is not very effective at preventing someone from intending to copy part or all of the website. It is common practice to add a sentence similar to the following under your copyright notice:

No part of this website may be reproduced, distributed, performed, made publicly available or converted into a derivative work without the permission of your legal name.

I’ve found this doesn’t really work in practice. And here’s why: this warning is more of a description of what is not allowed, something that is hardly a psychological motivator for someone who is already responsible for content theft.

A slightly more effective approach is to use a phrase that includes monitoring rather than simply specifying the rules. I’m a big fan of Copyscape.com where you can either use one of the embedded badges or just use the phrase “Page Protected by Copyscape. DO NOT COPY”. 

I’ve found this to be more of a deterrent to theft than just mentioning What Not To Do. Regardless of how you do it, you should indicate that active surveillance is in place.

How to stay vigilant

There are more surveillance programs available than you can shake off a stick. However, I find an effective way to choose one or more phrases that are reasonably unique to your work, put it in quotes, and set up a Google notification that will automatically notify you when a match is found. 

Another option is to manually look for duplicates using Copyscape’s search function or to log into one of their automated monitoring services.

How should one respond

So you noticed that someone copied some or all of the content. But freelancers like me tend to have limited resources and budgets, and your response needs to keep this reality in check.

The first step should always be to take a snapshot of the duplicated content, either as a hard copy or as a PDF. You want this ammunition in case you need to do anything later. 

The Internet Archive is another great resource for keeping track of past website content. However, it is not comprehensive over short periods of time and does not necessarily include the perpetrator’s website.

Your next step should be to motivate the thief by the mere act. Send the infringer a short, polite email asking them to remove the material. You’d be surprised how often this works! What won’t work is if you are sabotaging your chances of success by sending a nasty, angry, or threatening email. 

Instead of stimulating they’re “I’m caught” reflex, they create a more reactive response. In practice, I’ve found this to work with a significant number of violations.

If that doesn’t work, a response will be provided by sending the site owner a formal “quit and resign” letter. If the violation occurred online, you can usually get the owner’s email address from who.is or directly from their website. Write a simple, professional letter similar to the following:

I noticed the strong similarity between the elements of your website and my company’s website, www.example.com. Your use of material on our website constitutes a violation of our copyright law and is therefore subject to considerable liability under federal copyright law. Please remove this material from your website immediately and refrain from any material obtained from our website.

We would prefer to resolve this matter immediately without legal action and trust that your prompt cooperation will enable us to do so. Please send me confirmation that the illegal material will be removed from your website immediately so that this matter can be resolved. Thank you for your cooperation.

Check with your company’s lawyer to confirm this language is appropriate for your industry.

What if nothing happens?

Your next step should be to report a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) violation to Google and the other major search engines. This takes quite a bit of work and is not as easy as you think. However, this removes the offending website from search engine results and neutralizes the majority of the offender’s potential referrals.

At this point you need to ask yourself the million-dollar question: is the presence of this duplicate content a greater financial threat to you than the cost of getting an attorney? If the answer is no, you’ve gone as far as you can possibly go. 

However, if it can seriously disrupt your business, then you should turn to your lawyer. Another litmus test for this is likely to be the geographic location of the perpetrator versus the geographic scope of your coverage area. If you are offering a service regardless of location, you will likely need to take legal action no matter what.

While nothing in life is 100% certain, hopefully these suggestions and insights will be of use to your freelance life. As with all things, your mileage can vary.

resources

  1. The internet archive
  2. The United States Copyright Office
  3. Copyscape
  4. Google Alerts
  5. Respond to plagiarism
  6. Whois search
  7. Google DMCA notification process
  8. DMCA notification process

Disclaimer of liability

You should always seek independent financial advice and carefully read the terms and conditions relating to insurance, taxes, legal or financial matters, services or products. This article is intended as a guide only.

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