My Writing Was Stolen, Now What?

Posted on May 7, 2012 by Tom L

People hear all the time about copyright protections and how their creative, original products are automatically protected by federal law. However, in practice this protection is a bit of a myth. While it is true that copyright law for written work is automatic, the enforcement of the law is not.

Writers and creators of printed or published work still need to proactively protect their material from thieves who would claim the material as their own. However, how does a working freelance writer do this? It’s not as if most people are rolling in cash to hire a $300 per hour lawyer to protect their interests. Fortunately, there are a few low-cost or free steps that can get some behavior changes out of other parties with a writer’s material.

Strategies and Tips

First, writers can’t wait for someone to notify them their material is stolen. More often than not, many writers have no idea until they find their work by accident or they write for someone and a Copyscape trigger from the current client says the new material is copied (which of course leads to awkward conversation and shock for the writer). To avoid this problem, writers need to be proactive, using search engines to check that their published material is not being reprinted elsewhere under a different name. Search engines like Google and Bing tend to be pretty good at finding phrases quickly and will identify culprits sooner or later. Automated checking can be performed using tools like Google Alerts that troll for new material with key identifiers.

Second, most writers can easily draft up the same kind of notice a lawyer would send to a website to cease and desist continue to publish the stolen material. Doing so does a couple of things. It starts a documented record of the violation. Next, it puts the website host on notice there’s a copyright problem. Now they can’t say they didn’t know. Most importantly, under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), website hosts notified of questionable copyrighted material are required to remove it until they can prove the material is rightfully owned by the original poster, not the complaining party. If they don’t it opens up punitive damages if the copyright owner does sue and wins. Most website hosts don’t want to take that kind of risk.

The same DMCA notice can be sent to search engines that will delist the violating website as soon they are notified. This takes the website out of ranking results and remove them from Internet traffic flow. So if a freelance writer can’t get the violating material removed, he can at least stop searchers from seeing it.

Third, if escalation seems necessary beyond a notice letter, a writer should evaluate how much copyright enforcement is worth the trouble. If it is just for personal ego, then it’s probably time to cut losses. If, on the other hand, a major portion of royalties is being lost, real financial harm may be worth actually hiring a lawyer.

Tom L is a freelance writer available on WriterAccess, a marketplace where clients and expert writers connect for assignments.


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