Years ago, I had the not-fun feeling of seeing an article I had written sitting on a competing SEO company’s site (which will remain nameless.) The article was posted as if the SEO company wrote it. There was no byline, no link back to my site, no nothing.
I was pissed.
What’s worse is that the aforementioned scammy SEO argued that they owned the copyright! It wasn’t until that I showed them that the article originally appeared in a SearchDay issue did they take it down. So not cool. And did the SEO apologize? No. They said they took it down “because there was some confusion about who owned the copyright.”
It wasn’t confusing to me. That article was mine.
Unfortunately, the mad push to create value-added content makes good folks do really stupid things. Copy-stealers usually fall into one of three categories:
The “everything is free” copy-stealer. This person honestly has no idea that using your article would be harmful, bad or unethical. They just liked the article and wanted to put it on their site.
The unethical writer. This person “borrows” large sections of text in order to fulfill a current writing assignment. Although they may not copy the article completely, they will copy entire paragraphs and pass them off as theirs. What’s worse, they’ll sell their dupe article to a client. As discussed below, the client is then liable for the copyright violation.
The evil copyright violator. This person knows exactly what they are doing, don’t care and wait to get caught. I would lump the unethical SEO in this category.
Has this happened to you? If you’re wondering, copy a random snippet of text from one of your articles, paste it in the Google search box, put quotes around it and see what comes up. If pages are returned — be warned. Someone else may be using your content without your permission. Additionally, many site owners and writers use Copyscape (basic searching is free, premium is .05 a search with other goodies included) to catch the copyright violation.
So, what to do?
Most violators that I’ve dealt with have fallen in the first category — they didn’t mean to do anything wrong, and they are mortified when they learned what they’ve done. I’ve had great luck emailing people and saying, “Hey, take that article down. It’s mine.”
With other folks, it may be more of a battle.
Bob Ellis, partner in Conkle, Ellis, Fergus and MacDowell, LLP and whip-smart Internet attorney had this to say about the topic:
Whether your material is copied verbatim or whether it’s “adapted,” it’s still copyright infringement. Everything you create that is your original work (text, art, scribbles, scripts, etc.) is automatically copyrighted when you create it — no need to say “copyright (c) 2002″, no need to say “all rights reserved”. But having a copyright and being able to enforce it are two different things.
The best way to be able to enforce your copyright rights is to file a copyright registration for every piece of work you want to protect. Registration is easy — no attorney necessary — and fairly cheap: only $35 if you file online. The Copyright Office website at www.copyright.gov will walk you through it.
What are the advantages of registration? Once you have registered your work, you have a legal right to sue infringers in federal court, to get an injunction ordering the infringement to stop, and to receive rather hefty “statutory damages” — that is, damages you don’t have to prove — as well as attorney fees. If you haven’t registered, all you can get is an injunction and actual damages, the ones you have to prove.
Any person or company that posts your work on their site is liable; not just the web developer who may have been the true culprit. If the only infringer is an individual without much money you could end up spending a lot of money for an injunction, and there would be no money for damages or attorney fees. If a major corporation infringes your copyright, a credible threat will probably produce a quick, favorable settlement for you, but if they are determined they could spend unlimited amounts on lawyers to grind you down and string things out.
An online service provider on whose servers the infringing copies happen to reside is NOT considered an infringer, but you can even send the service provider a demand that the infringing material be removed, and they are required by law to respond.
Copyright violation can be fairly common in today’s “the Internet is free” environment. The key is catching it — fast. After all, you’ve put time, money and effort in your content. Why let someone else use it for free and without attribution?