Hands Off: 7 Tips to Handle Content Thieves With Tact

Let’s just say it. 

There’s no worse feeling than seeing your stolen content make a cameo on another website. Whether they’ve lifted an entire blog post, snatched and tailored some body copy, or pawned your images or videos off as their own, the volatile combination of resentment and frustration you feel at first glance is enough to leave any business owner shaking their fists with rage. 

The damage has been done. Now what? While it seems like there’s no easy way to achieve content justice, all it takes – in most cases – is some fancy footwork to keep your brand’s content assets safe. 

Put a copyright notice where it can't be ignored.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act protects all content published online under copyright law, whether you’ve displayed a copyright symbol on the page or not. Your content – which includes words, images, videos, or other media – are yours, and cannot be used by others for profit without your express permission. Copyright laws exist so that you can exercise full control over where, when, and how you publish your work. 

However, publishing content means it’s your business to check up on who may be stealing it. By registering under the DMCA, you can protect against sticky fingers and document that your creative work belongs to you and you alone. Sites like Squarespace and Wordpress already come with copyright notices baked in, but if you're not sure how to add one to your website, ask someone who knows, so you can make it clear that you won’t tolerate plagiarism.

Stay on alert to find infringement as it happens. 

Sites like Copyscape exist for this very reason: to help you find your biggest offenders. Enter your website URLs into the search box and you’ll be able to spot duplicate content across the web. Copyscape will also encourage you to search for related URLs, like your About or Services page, so be sure to run a health check on as many pages as possible each month to keep tabs.  

You can also set a Google Alert to keep a watchful eye on any content thievery that might happen behind your back. Add your business name, few key phrases used in your content, and any trademarked words that belong to you. If something fishy happens, you’ll be able to track who has published your words, and where. 

If the offender has an email newsletter, subscribe to it to send a wicked smoke signal. 

By subscribing to their newsletter or mailing list, you not only let the content thief know you’re onto them – but you’ll also be able to keep tabs to see if they’ve copy/pasted any of your words and phrases in the future.

If the offender is watching their subscriber list carefully enough, a guilty conscience and some flustered cheeks may be all it takes to resolve the issue quickly.

Write a firm email, but don’t ask them to change anything. 

It can be easy to let emotions get the best of you, so take a break before you hurl threats or get personal. Go for a run, grab another cup of coffee… whatever it takes to clear your mind and come back to the keyboard with diplomacy.

Start your email off by borrowing a trick from your Mom, letting the content thief know how disappointed you are in what you’ve found on their site. Include screenshots of your site next to theirs, and be sure to clearly and articulately point out where your content shows up by referencing page URL’s and areas on the page, such as headlines, body copy, or calls-to-action.

Tools like Skitch allow you to add a big, red arrow to the place on the page you’re referencing, so the content in question is big, bold, and obvious. You can also try using the Wayback Machine to prove that your original content was published first, in case they attempt to claim ownership.

Hit your point home the sign-off by telling the offender that, from one business owner to another, it’s poor form to steal creative content. If you'd like to extend some grace, tell them that you'd be happy to give them a few copywriter referrals if they need help finding the right words to express themselves.

Finally, don’t ask them to change anything. Simply tell them you’ve noticed your content on their website, and you’re willing to take further action to protect your work if necessary.

Send an invoice.

When push comes to shove, don’t get mad – get paid. If you hear crickets after taking the steps above, get serious about your actions by sending an invoice for the time you spent creating the stolen content. 

Dan Catt, a photographer, took a photo of his son drinking from a juice box back in 2008. When BuzzFeed lifted the photo for one of its list pieces, “18 Everyday Products You’ve Been Using Wrong” and racked up 4.3 million views, 7,000 tweets, and 101,000 Facebook shares, Dan took things into his own hands by sending an invoice for $500 for the photo.

BuzzFeed agreed to pay the amount for Dan’s work, which he requested be donated to Chordoma Foundation, a nonprofit on a mission to improve the lives of those affected by chordoma. Done and done. 

By sending an invoice after multiple points of contact, you’re also creating a paper trail that you can use in your defense, should you decide to pursue more serious legal action. 

Keep your content case locked for the right context.

If you have important collateral like client files, portfolio work, design comps, PDF’s or package specific details (e.g., wedding planning packages, branding packages), you might protect them from wandering eyes with an invitation-only access code.

This isn’t to say that you should put your entire site to private viewing only. However, if you have details that should only be discussed privately, with potential clients or interested partners, consider protecting your content for the right context. Sites like Squarespace allow you to put some pages on an invitation-only mode, so when an interested client wants to see more, they can send you a message and you can send them the “key”. 

While it’s not right for every type of content, this strategy allows you to evaluate the person requesting the information and decide for yourself whether or not you want to share your work with them. If they're not the right fit, you have the option of keeping it to yourself.

If all else fails, ask for an introduction to a lawyer who understands creative businesses. 

If you’ve tried everything, ask around for an introduction to a lawyer who works with businesses in creative services, and specifically, copyright issues. Some lawyers will give you a small counseling session for free before you decide your next plan of action. Send them every piece of incriminating information you’ve got, and remember: any investment you have to make is also an investment in protecting your work. 

The twisted thing about content thievery? 

It feels icky to admit, but the content thief in question is clearly a huge fan of yours if they were impressed with your work enough to put their name on it and spread it around. The silver lining is that you've created content that people want for themselves, which is an enormous testament to the quality of the work you're publishing. Just make sure you take the right steps to protect it.