How to Protect Your Intellectual Property Online

It’s inevitable. If you are successful as a blogger, people are going to steal your content. You’ll wake up one morning to a Google Alert, notifying you that your name was mentioned on another blog.

A Lock and a Copyright Symbol - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/Norebbo, Image #5271774

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/Norebbo

Great, you’ll think, I love free publicity. I also know that “inbound links” help increase my search engine rankings.

You then click on the link to read the post. To your horror, you discover that another blogger has re-posted one of your entire blog posts, word-for-word.

This has happened to me several times. Each time, it takes my breath away. I feel violated. I think, I spent a considerable amount of time creating that post, and they just re-posted it without my permission?

What do you do?

First of all, breathe. This is not the end of the world. As a writer, your biggest problem is obscurity not piracy. The very fact that someone thought enough of your work to re-post it on their own blog means they value it. You should first of all take it as a compliment.

Now let me suggest that there are eight ways you can protect your intellectual property online. If you follow these steps, they will dramatically reduce the chances of your content being stolen. They will also provide a strategy for dealing with it when it happens.

  1. Understand copyright law. Your post is protected from the moment you create it. You don’t have to register it. It is your intellectual property, and no one can legally reproduce it. However, the law only protects the expression of your idea not the idea itself. If someone writes about your post in their own words, that is perfectly legitimate. In fact, you should welcome it. Consider it free publicity.
  2. Publish an official copyright notice. This is not required in order to protect your work, nor does it grant you any additional rights. However, it reminds the world that this is your intellectual property. You own it. Using a copyright notice (e.g., “© 2010, Michael Hyatt”) can thus serve as a deterrent. I put mine in my blog’s footer, so it appears at the bottom of every page.
  3. Create an explicit permissions policy. Create a separate page, spelling out exactly what people may do with your content. I have divided my Permissions Policy into two sections: what others can do without my permission and what they can do with my permission. Be explicit. This will keep people from contacting you about every use of your content, but it will also give you a published standard to refer to when someone violates it.
  4. Give the benefit of the doubt. Not everyone who re-posts your content does so maliciously. In my experience, most people simply don’t know the law. They are not intentionally infringing on your rights. Usually, they are fans who are excited about your work and want to share it with their readers. They are just uninformed about copyright law and need an education.
  5. Request that they remove your post. You can do this either via email (preferred) or in a comment. However, be gracious and assume their motives are good. You don’t want to throttle their enthusiasm. You want them to promote your work; you just don’t want them to violate your rights. I start by thanking them for posting it, but graciously explain that this is actually illegal. I then point them to my Permissions Policy and suggest that they post an excerpt. In every case, people have apologized to me and complied with my request. (Your mileage may vary.)
  6. Demand that they take down your content. I have never had to go this far in the online world with my own content. (As a book publisher, my company has had to do this with people who were scanning our books and posting them online for free.) However, if the offender doesn’t respond well to the last step, you have to escalate your response from a request to a demand. You do this by sending a “demand letter” (or email), insisting that they take the content down. Even here, I would still be gracious (at least the first time), assuming they simply don’t understand the gravity of the situation.
  7. Notify the infringer’s hosting service. If you still can’t get the offender to cooperate, you need to do a little research. Find their “WhoIs Record,” using a tool like DomainTools. This will show you their domain registration information, including who hosts the site. You will want to send an email to the hosting service. Usually it is an address like abuse@[the name of the hosting service]. Tell them that you are requesting a “take-down” of the Web site and explain why. Legitimate services will investigate and, if they agree, send their own demand to the offender. If he doesn’t comply, they will take down the site.
  8. Hire an attorney to take action. If the service provider is shady, incompetent, or offshore, you may need to hire an attorney to represent you. You have to weigh this against the damage you believe is being done and the cost of litigation. It can get expensive fast, and there is no guarantee of success. Real pirates are incredibly evasive and can disappear and reappear online faster than you can work through the legal process.

The last thing I would leave you with is this: “don’t let the tail wag the dog.” In other words, don’t deprive your legitimate audience—the vast majority of your readers—from your content just because you have an occasional person who violates your copyright. It’s just not worth it. As I said at the beginning, your biggest problem as a writer is obscurity. The more people reproduce your content, the more people will be exposed to it. Ultimately, this will benefit you.

Question: Have you ever had your content misappropriated?

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