What To Do When Your Work is Stolen Online

Stealing on the internet is easy.  It takes very little effort for someone to copy your work and slap their name on it.  Almost every month I hear of a photographer, blogger, or designer I know whose work gets used without their permission.  With all this copyright infringement going around, I’d be surprised if a majority of WWD readers claim that this has never happened to them.

When it does happen, what should you do?

Document first

The first thing you should do is to document the act of infringement itself.  Since there are so many things for you to document – from screenshots to various site stats and rankings – I’ll just point the way to other articles that have covered the documentation process exhaustively:

Try to communicate

Unless the theft seems malicious or has serious consequences, it often helps to take a calm, but firm approach.  While you may be hurt initially, don’t get emotional when writing that first email or making that call.  After all, they might not have had proper knowledge of copyright law when they did it, or it might be an honest mistake (such as what happened to fellow WWD blogger Aliza Sherman a few months back).  Show them the facts and tell them what they need to do to set things straight.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you should have warm, fuzzy feelings for copyright violators.  There is a huge difference between a scraper site and 10 year old girl who is a first-time blogger.  It’s perfectly fair to get web hosts and search engines to ban the former, but it would be an unnecessarily scathing experience for the latter.

The point I am trying to make is that when you communicate with the person at fault, do it formally.  Don’t send a flaming rant or make a defamatory post in your blog.  (Yet.)  Remember that you’re a professional, and everything you send out must show this.  If it is an obvious, honest mistake that can be fixed with a little communication, then it’s best to take that route.

Get help

If you’re unsure how to approach this situation, look at the legal facts and turn to a professional.  There are some websites where you can get free legal advice, which you can use as a starting point to clear up the legal aspects of the violation.  Also, familiarize yourself with the actual provisions and exceptions of the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act).  If reading the actual text seems too tedious for you, at least read the Wikipedia page on the DMCA.

It’s important to remember that nothing beats the advice of a licensed lawyer that you can discuss all these things with.  That’s why I noted in a previous post that a lawyer is one of the most important contacts you could ever have.

This is especially important if the case is vague, such as two blog posts discussing the same subject with the same angle, or two website templates that look similar.

Copyright infringement may be rampant, but many internet users are starting to take it seriously.  There might come a day when it no longer happens, but until then, we should be standing up for our rights to our work.

Has your work been stolen online? What did you do about it?

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