Dealing with copyright infringements of your web page or blog

What to do if someone rips off your intellectual property on the Internet.

By Donald Ritchie

Consider the scenario: You've spent long hours carefully crafting a useful and original web page. You've polished the prose, and produced some attractive artwork to go with it. Satisfied, you upload it to your site or blog. Later, you're browsing the web, and stumble across an article that seems familiar. On a closer look, you see that someone has blatantly copied your entire work, stripped out your name, and re-published it as their own.

Unfortunately, this kind of copyright theft (and I don't apologize for calling it that) is much too common. But you don't have to put up with it. In this article, I'll explain how to find out when someone rips off your intellectual property, and what you can do to put things right.

Of course, you might not be worried by this. Not all writers, publishers or bloggers object when people pirate their work in this way. Some even feel flattered by it. If you are one of those, that's fine. But, if like me, you hate the idea of someone profiting from your hard work without so much as an acknowledgement, read on.

How to detect copyright infringement

One way to find out when someone illegally copies your work is to do a Google search for the key phrases in your text, and then take a close look at what comes up. But that can be extremely laborious, especially if you have a lot of content that you want to protect.

A better option is to use an automatic "plagiarism checker", of which the best known is Copyscape. This offers several useful services. At its simplest, you specify the URL of a page on your site (Figure 1). The service then returns a list of all the pages it finds which contain similar or identical text. You can then review these, and decide which of them really are illicit copies.

Copyscape

Figure 1: Copyscape's free service can check for copies of individual pages.

This is a free service, but a limited one. It only lets you check one page at a time, and there is a ceiling on the number of checks that you can run in a month. But it can still be very effective. If you have created a particularly interesting or useful web page, you might be surprised - or horrified - at how often it gets ripped off.

Copyscape also offers a premium service. This lets you submit up to 10,000 pages in a single batch. Or you can sign up for their CopySentry program which continually monitors your site, and emails you whenever it detects an infringement. These services will be overkill for a small site owner or blogger - not to mention expensive. But they appeal strongly to those with a large site to protect.

What to do about it

Having detected an infringement, the next step is to try to get it removed. Start with an email to the site's operator, pointing out the violation and asking them to take down the offending page.

At this stage, be firm, but be polite. Don't get angry, and don't make accusations. Remember, the person you are contacting might have acted in good faith, for example, if the work in question was submitted by a third-party contributor.

The following is a form of words which I have successfully used on many occasions:

I am writing to notify you that your website contains material that is in violation of my copyright.

The offending material is on the page entitled title of page containing illegal copy at . URL of illegal copy .

This page contains an exact copy of an article written by myself, which was first published on date . The original article can be seen at URL of the original article .

In order to avoid any further action, I would ask you to remove the offending material immediately.

Thank you for your co-operation.

Be sure to include your full contact details. If you are acting on behalf of another person, state the fact that you are authorized to act on their behalf.

To find out where to send the email, check the contact details on the site. If you can't find an email address, look for a contact form.

Contacting the abuse administrator

If you can't find any way to contact the site, or if they don't respond within a few days, the next step is to submit a complaint to the hosting company. All reputable hosting companies have a so-called abuse administrator whose job it is deal with problems of this kind.

To find out how to contact the abuse administrator, first find the site's IP address. To do that, open a command prompt and type the word ping, followed by a space, and then the site's domain name (without the http:// prefix). Next, go to any Whois tool (I use http://whois.domaintools.com, but there are others) and run a search on the IP address.

All being well, this should return the name, address and phone number of the site's hosting company, along with an email address for the abuse administrator. Send your email to that address. You can use similar wording to what I've shown above, modified to reflect the fact that you are talking to a hosting company, not the site's operator (so change "your website" to "a site that you host", for instance).

Using the DMCA to deal with copyright infringement

If the site or hosting company is in the USA, you have another card in your hand: the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

The DMCA provides a formal method of submitting a take-down notice to any company that hosts or re-publishes third-party content. These include blogging platforms, photo-sharing sites, forums and social networks, as well as traditional web-hosting firms. When you issue a notice, the recipient is not obliged to act on it. But it is in their interests to do so, as this enables them to take advantage of the Act's "safe harbor" provision (which, essentially, gives them some immunity against prosecution).

But the DMCA is a two-edged sword. As well as defending the genuine rights of copyright holders, it also provides safeguards against false claims. This is necessary because some large content owners have been known to try to bully their way into having content removed, often on very dubious grounds. The Act gives the alleged infringer the right to issue a counter notice, and also stipulates penalties for false claims.

If you are confident in your claim, you should certainly consider taking action under the DMCA. But if there is any doubt about the ownership of the copyright in question or whether the copying that you are complaining about really is an infringement, think carefully before proceeding.

If you do decide to go ahead, contact the abuse administrator at the hosting company, using the wording shown above. Also include the following paragraphs:

I have a good faith belief that use of the copyrighted materials described in this email as allegedly infringing is not authorized by the copyright owner, its agent, or the law.

The information in this notification is accurate and I swear, under penalty of perjury, that I am the copyright owner or am authorized to act on behalf of the owner of an exclusive right that is allegedly infringed.

The language might sound intimidating (especially the bit about penalty of perjury), but don't let that put you off. In the majority of cases, the email will achieve the desired result (but remember that it only has any legal force in the United States).

Complaining about copyright infringement to Google, Yahoo and others

Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Facebook and other major players go out of their way to deal with complaints about copyright infringement on their publishing platforms. These platforms include Google's Blogger, Facebook pages, Yahoo Answers, Flickr (which is owned by Yahoo), Bing (owned by Microsoft), Picasa (owned by Google) and other similar sites.

You can use the links below to report copyright issues to these companies. In some cases, the link will take you to an on-line form that you can use to submit your complaint. In others, the link will lead to a page containing information about how to proceed with your complaint.

As well as removing infringing material from its own platforms, Google will consider requests to exclude offending pages from its search results. The page in question will still be available to anyone who happens to find it, but, because it won't show up in a Google search, it will be much less visible.

Is it worth the effort?

By now, you might be wondering if defending your copyright will be worth all this effort. Only you can decide that. If the pirated material is on an obscure blog that rarely shows up in search results, you might decide not to bother. But you might feel differently if the site in question is stealing visitors from your own site - if it appears near your site in search results, for instance. In that case, you might be suffering a real financial loss, and action would certainly be justified.

Fair use

Keep in mind that not all unauthorized copying of content is illegal. In many jurisdictions (including the USA), the law permits "fair use" or "fair dealing". Essentially, this allows small extracts of a copyright work to be published without permission as part of a larger work, such as in a review or a text book. It would be unreasonable to try to enforce your rights in these cases.

Final word

In this article, my aim has been to give you some practical tips for dealing with the very real problem of plagiarism on the web. This should not be construed as legal advice. If you're faced with a particularly serious case of copyright theft, consider talking to an attorney. In most cases, though, that won't be necessary. The steps I've described here have proved successful for me in my own efforts at defending my copyright. I hope they will for you too.

December 2011

Please note: The information given on this site has been carefully checked and is believed to be correct, but no legal liability can be accepted for its use. Do not use code, components or techniques unless you are satisfied that they will work correctly with your sites or applications.

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