Protecting and Defending Your Content from Theft

Sad Fact: Someone Probably Will (Or Already Has) Stolen Your Content

When and Why Content Theft Hurts You

Many people do not mind when their work is stolen. In most cases, violation of your copyright does not actually hurt you, and we encourage people to be open to sharing their ideas and work (sharing is the foundation of the internet, after all).

If you simply feel miffed that someone used your copyrighted work without your permission (and their use does not harm you), we recommend:

  • Giving your work a Creative Commons license, which provides a better framework for legal (and convenient) use and attribution of your work (more on that below)
  • Contacting those who violate your copyright and ask for attribution and a link back to the source

Content theft does hurt you when:

  • You are trying to sell or make a profit from your work
  • Your work is written and gains most of its traffic via search engines
  • Somebody else is taking credit for you work and others are linking back to it as though it were the original source

Should you, for example, be trying to sell a photo, it will be hard to sell it if thousands of people have already copied and shared it online.

In some cases, content creators lose traffic to their work because other copies of it online get higher search rankings (Google is supposed to track what gets published there first and give original content precedence, but it is not always great at doing so). In these cases, content creators lose audiences and money, should their work be monetized via ads or views to their work lead to donations and purchases.

Finally, it can be infuriating when a content thief claims responsibility for your work and gets attention for it. If you are trying to build a name for yourself online, having attention unfairly drawn from your work can be a huge setback.

When to Give Your Work a Creative Commons License

Creative Commons licenses enable others to easily use your work while still leaving you in control of how your work is used. Through a Creative Commons license, you an stipulate, for example, that others can use your work so long as they attribute you, do not alter it, and do not use it for commercial purposes.

When to Register Your Work with the US Copyright Office

You maintain the rights to anything you publish online (so long as you have not agreed to modify or surrender them per a user agreement required to join a given online publishing platform).

That said, there are still instances in which you will want to actually register your work with the US Copyright Office, as the copyright you automatically receive upon completing your work is limited.

You should register for copyright if:

  • You intend to take an infringement issue to court

You may not benefit from registering for copyright if:

  • You do not intend to take an infringement case to court (you can still definitely file DMCA complaints and make a ruckus when your work is stolen!)

How to Clearly Establish Authorship Online

You retain copyright to anything you publish online*, but there are additional things you can do to more actively assert ownership of your work.

We recommend:

  • Establishing authorship of your work using Google+
  • Putting a clear publication date on your work
  • Making sure your name is incorporated into every piece of work you publish
  • Creating original, unique work that showcases your unique, distinctive style
  • Adding digital watermarks to your images (if you really want to go above and beyond)
  • Clearly and consistently stating your work’s license (whether it be copyrighted, have a public domain license, or feature a Creative Commons license) on your site

Adding small watermarks to images is also an option, however these are often cut off by those who wish to steal your work, and they do not stop innocent people from using your work without your permission (they may not mind the watermarks at all).

We do not recommend:

  • Putting huge watermarks across images that detract from their aesthetic and functional value
  • Featuring copyright notices in a manner that detracts from your audience’s experience (they care about your content, not your copyright)
  • Featuring copyright notices in a manner that shows you in a negative light (you run the risk of looking like an alarmist, a fearmonger, a worrier, or worse yet, someone who does not believe in the share-and-share-alike spirit of the internet)

*So long as you are publishing on a platform with a user agreement that does not assume some rights to your work! Read those agreements before clicking “I Agree”!

How to Monitor Your Work for Copyright Infringement

If you hope to earn money from your work or intend to sell it, it is important that you monitor it to ensure it has not been stolen.

You can automate your monitoring to a certain extent by establishing alerts using services like Google Alerts that will notify you when content containing a particular excerpt of your work is found. Paid services will help you monitor text more thoroughly (and also help you with photos and videos), but we do not recommend them in most cases.

You can also utilize tools such as Google, Copyscape, and TinEye to run occasional manual searches on your work every month or so.

For more information on using specific services to monitor your work, visit our guide on monitoring text for copyright infringement.

Finally, we recommend developing a support network online that consists of friends and colleagues who watch out for each other’s work. If your work is stolen from a common platform, chances are the work of other people on that platform have also had their copyright violated, so you can do everyone a great service by notifying fellow community members of widespread theft (and looking out for others’ warnings).

What to Do When Your Content is Stolen

Like we said, it is almost inevitable that your content will eventually be used without permission (especially if you are prolific or a particularly talented content creator).

When this happens, we recommend following this process of escalation (each bullet links to a guide featuring detailed steps for each process):

  1. Send a friendly takedown message asking for the content to be taken down, attributed, reduced to a smaller excerpt, and/or purchased within a certain number of days
  2. Send a DMCA complaint to the individual if he or she does not respond as requested within that period of time
  3. File a DMCA complaint with the violator’s platform or host
  4. File DMCA complaints with search engines (primarily, Google, Bing, and Yahoo!)
  5. Report abuse with affiliate and ad programs in which the thief is enrolled

A Note on Documentation

When dealing with stolen content, it is of great importance that you keep records.

We recommend putting the following details in an organized folder with subfolders dedicated to each incident:

  • Proof of registration with the US Copyright Office (should you have chosen to register the work in question)
  • The date at which your original content was published*
  • The date at which you discovered your content was stolen
  • Locations (URLs) of stolen content
  • Details of the stolen content (exactly how much content was stolen, when it was posted, etc.)
  • A screenshot of the stolen content as you discovered it
  • The name, address, email address, phone number, and any other information about the individual or individuals who stole your content
  • Records of all written communication with those who have improperly used your content
  • Records of every DMCA complaint you sent or submitted (if you submit a complaint or takedown request through a form, we recommend taking a screenshot of the form before submitting it and titling the screenshot with the date and time at which the form was submitted)
  • Records of any loss in traffic or sales you experienced after the stolen content was posted

Keeping this information in a central place will help you to stay organized as you take escalating steps toward addressing stolen content and help you present a more robust case should you ever decide to take legal action.

*One way to establish your publication date is to search for your content on Google, click the arrows to the right of your page’s search listing, click the “cached” link, and take a screenshot of the resulting message indicating the latest cache date. You might also take screenshots of any dates available to you as a site admin indicating when you first posted the work.

A Note on Comportment

Having your content stolen can be an emotionally harrowing experience, but it is best to maintain as grounded an approach as possible. Content theft is commonplace online, and every content creator will have to deal with it to some extent.

There is little to be gained from getting emotional (both internally and when dealing with third parties, no matter how malicious they might be). Professional comportment will lead to the fastest resolution with the least damage (mostly to your own reputation). Take the high road, follow our straightforward steps, and move on to focus on what matters: meeting your goals and making a difference.