Monday, July 11, 2005

Protecting Your Online Content

Over the years, I've done a significant amount of writing online and been dismayed to it has been stolen and put into other people's web sites without proper attribution. Even worse, I've discovered my designs in other people's portfolios and in one case, someone stole the entire content of my home page, "about" page (!), "services" page and a number of my copyrighted resources! Despite any cliches about that being flattery, this sort of thing is terribly upsetting - after all, for many of us in the service and intellectual property fields, what is between our ears and our talent is what keeps a roof over our heads. Finding out some jerk is profiting in any way from this theft can be downright infuriating!

Protecting your online content

First of all, when you write or design anything, you HAVE to state your ownership in a copyright. Putting a copyright statement on the bottom of each page tells the honest potential "borrowers" of your content that they can not have it. I use the following:

© 2003-2005 SOHO It Goes! ® All Rights Reserved. No portion of this site, including this web page, any sub pages, and any of the graphics, may be copied, retransmitted, reposted, duplicated or otherwise used without the express written permission of SOHO It Goes!

Makes it pretty clear, right? But still, despite this, I find my content popping up on other people's sites without credit. How do I find it? Well - usually, I find it with Google. I occasionally copy a particularly unique phrase from one of my articles, into Google and search - and am astonished to find out how many times the article is out there. More often than not - it's properly credited. But quite often, I discover other designers and web shops offering my words as resources to their clients without credit. Graphics are a lot harder - sometimes I can find them if I've given a file a unique name but more often than not, I can't find them. What usually happens is that someone else tips me off that one of my graphics has been stolen - usually anonymously (kind of makes me wonder...).

Manually searching for violations takes more time (and organization) than many of us have, so setting yourself up with some GoogleAlerts for unique phrases in your content is a good idea. This way, you'll know every time someone has mentioned that phrase. You can also use which will help track down copy violators online.

Another proactive approach would be to make sure you have dated copies of your site files and content going back to the beginning of time. If you do haul someone into court on a copyright violation, having all the original working files for your designs and the manuscripts of what you wrote will help your cause.

Having your site in the - a sort of virtual time capsule of web sites - will also help prove that the content originated with you. You don't have to DO anything except let the Way Back spider visit your site periodically and archive you - you don't want to block that one in any way!

Dealing with Thieves

When you do find a thief, what can you do, and what are your options?

The sad, short answer is "not a whole lot." For one thing, many content thieves are in foreign countries and simply laugh at any legal threats. Plus, sometimes it's hard to give thieves a good reason to knock it off when you're a small business owner without funds for a good lawyer.

A cease and desist letter from a lawyer is the best option so PrePaid Legal might be something else to look into. I haven't used them but my understanding is that for a business, its a very cost effective way of having a lawyer in your pocket for little things like scary letters to web thieves. If it is important enough to you that you want to take someone to court, then having followed some of the preceding ideas will help you prove your case.

Probably the most tempting solution is to write an irate letter or call the person who stole your content. Bear a few things in mind. First, this can backfire on you because you want to maintain your professionalism and not slide into a war with someone. Still, a calmly written letter with a pleasant but firm tone might be all you need. Always try to give the benefit of the doubt and an "out" - for example, say "You might not realize that this is my content..." A surprising number of site owners have put the blame on their web developer - "Oh, I wasn't aware they stole it from you, I'll take care of it right away." WHATEVER. As long as it comes down, you don't care who they blame, right? You just want people to respect your intellectual property rights.

Usually, providing a link to your copy and a link to theirs, with a brief history of your usage or ownership is enough to tweak the thieves who are truly clueless or who have a "they can't catch me" attitude towards theft. You will also find that some people will simply ignore you - or worse, retaliate. This happened once to me when someone freaked out and said *I* stole HER content. Clearly deluded she was, I decided to skip the war and let the wheels of karma have at her.

A Note for Site Owners

If you're developing a site, a simple rule of thumb is that if the words or pictures you are coveting are on another site don't specifically say "take what you want", then DON'T. Never assume the owner will not find out (hopefully I've proven, above, how easy it has been to do just that). Don't believe that anything online is "up for grabs" because it simply is not true. If you are unsure, ask - very often the owner will say you can use it with proper credit.

On occasion, a web thief is dealt with by a peer group - and it can get pretty messy. For example, one online web development community I'm in willingly jumps to the aid of anyone who asks for advice on a theft - they'll write letters to the thief, call and leave voice messages, all basically trying to shame them into removing the offending content. This can very quickly get out of control - so if you are a business owner, you might think twice about where you get the content you use, and keep your reputation intact. Better that than have a public denouncement of your business because you lifted something erroneously or deliberately.

In conclusion

In the end, although there aren't a lot of concrete protections for intellectual property of any kind, it helps to look at the big picture. The rules have clearly changed - for musicians, for artists, for software developers, and writers. Certainly, we all run the risk of having our soft matter poached! But at the same time, if there were tougher enforceable laws, would we somehow lose out? Would we still enjoy this mind boggling array of influences from other creative and talented folks every day we're online?


© 2005 All rights reserved.

Eileen Parzek is a graphic designer and writer providing graphic and web design services. Always found at the intersection of information, creativity and technology, her business, SOHO It Goes! ( helps small businesses make a big impression.


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