Last Updated on January 20, 2022
The free-for-all on the internet has created untold business opportunities. As it turns out, removing barriers gives more people the chance to test their ideas. In particular, intellectual property has proliferated on the web. It’s no surprise, really. The web makes it easier to publish anything.
There’s just one downside: the web is essentially an infinite copy machine. What you create gets copied automatically. It’s part of the web’s architecture. With that ease of copying comes some negative side effects. Anyone can copy — steal — your intellectual property, oftentimes without you even noticing.
The only solution is to exercise — in the words of Alastor Moody — constant vigilance. If someone steals your intellectual property and you do nothing about it, have they really stolen anything? In effect, they haven’t. In order to protect your assets, you must be proactive. Here are a few tips for keeping your intellectual property in your own hands.
Set up alerts for copied content
How easy is it to steal text on the internet? As easy as it is to highlight text, copy it, and paste it onto another page. Even worse, you can do that at scale. Scrapers can take content from many pages and paste it onto many pages as well. Every time you press publish, someone — whether human or scraper — copies your content somewhere else.
In many cases, particularly with scrapers, this is harmless. You might feel annoyed that your content was stolen, but the actual effect is very little. Humans simply don’t visit those sites. Google has worked to remove them from its index, so there’s little worry that someone will find a scraper site before they find yours.
The trouble comes when people, maliciously or not, copy text from your site and use it on theirs. Even if they link back to your site, they’re still not right. It’s your text. You own it.
To combat this, consider setting up alerts. Google Alerts is an easy-to-use and free tool. It might be a pain if you put out a lot of content, but it will prove useful in notifying you when another site takes your content. If you do publish often, and earn a profit, consider investing in Copyscape. It runs automatic searches, so you don’t have to worry about setting up new Google Alerts.
Run image searches
Photo stealing runs rampant on the web. Tools like Google Image Search make it easy for anyone to find images. Instead of asking permission to use those images, though, people tend to just take them and place them on their websites. This is blatant theft, and should not be tolerated. If you own an image, no one else has the right to use it, even if they credit you.
While Google Image Search has made it easy to steal images, it has also made it easy to detect theft. Just go to Google Image Search and drag a photo into the search box. Google will then search for uses of the image elsewhere on the web. You might be surprised at how many people have taken your image without so much as asking you if it was OK.
(Alternatively, you can paste the image uRL into the search box. You might not get any results, but you can click on the “search by image” link at the top.)
Trademark your brand and logo
You know what discourages people from stealing things? When they have that big registered trademark logo — ® — pasted on their properties. It’s like a “No Trespassing” sign: you’ll reduce the number of bad actors, but won’t get rid of them completely.
There are plenty of other advantages to trademark registration. For instance, you can sue infringers in federal court, which is typically more efficient than local circuits. So those people who ignore the “No Tresspassing” sign might have to face actual consequences.
Note that not everything kind of intellectual property is eligible for trademark. The content of a blog, for instance, is governed by copyright rather than trademark. Trademarks cover brand names, logos, and other identifying and distinguishing factors. For instance, the brand name Nike, the swoosh logo, and the slogan “Just do it” are all covered by trademark. A Nike commercial, on the other hand, is protected by copyright.
For further reading on how you can use trademarks to your advantage, check out trademark attorney Xavier Morales’s guide at SecureYourTrademark.com.
Always confront violators
I repeat the question I asked above: if someone steals your intellectual property and you do nothing about it, did they really steal anything?
You can set up alerts to let you know when people take your content. You can run images searches to see who is using your photos without permission. You can file trademark applications and slap that ® symbol on your brand name and logo. It doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t go after the people who violate your rights.
Always remember: they are at fault. You should not feel bad about taking steps to stop them. It doesn’t matter if they’re an industry leader or some blogger with a half dozen readers. There is no excuse for stealing intellectual property.
How can you confront people who steal your IP? Your response will depend on the crime, of course. But in general these steps are advisable.
A simple email.
You’d be surprised at how many people don’t know it’s wrong to steal content — or at least act like they don’t know. If you email the person who stole the content, sometimes they’ll take it down no questions asked. This is why you don’t send a hostile email: your tone can dictate the response. Approach as though it’s a simple mistake, and sometimes you’ll get a simple solution.
Send a DMCA takedown notice.
If the website owner does not respond, you’ll have to escalate the situation quickly. Don’t bother asking again. If they didn’t respond the first time, go straight to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act procedure. That involves finding the site’s host (via a lookup like who.is) and sending them a standard DMCA takedown letter. NPAA has a concise summary of the process.
The post is more than eight years old at this point, but you should also read Lorelle’s post on dealing with IP thieves. It’s the most comprehensive guide I’ve seen on the matter, and she provides many alternatives.
Because the internet is made for copying, it migth not seem like a crime to actually copy stuff. Perhaps we do need new rules on copyright that reflect on the current reality. But in no situation should anyone be able to steal the work you created with impunity. If you want to retain ownership of your work, take the steps necessary to protect your intellectual property. As you can see here, it’s not all that difficult. A few automated processes and some communication go a long way.