Have you ever been searching for something online, and found something that looked way too similar to one of your works? If so, you probably got a sick feeling in your stomach and felt like you got totally ripped off.
The question then becomes, what do you do when it looks like someone has ripped off your content or your idea?
Step #1 – Determine Whether There Has Been An Infringement
First, you need to evaluate whether they actually stole something from you illegally, or whether they did something that was perfectly legal.
Many people think that they have been ripped off, when it was just their idea that was being modeled.
If another person just modeled after your idea, but didn’t copy your actual work or your source code, then there is not likely any copyright infringement.
Only a patent can protect the idea itself. So unless you had the idea patented, then others can model after your ideas without violating your copyright interests.
Copyright infringement occurs when someone has access to your work and copies a substantial portion of the protectable elements.
That means that they would have needed to see your work, and then copy a substantial portion from it (whether that be the text or underlying source code).
There are lots of online tools that make it easy to find out if someone has stolen your content. One example is Copyscape. Copyscape lets you paste the URL of an article into the tool and then it gives you a list of any other web sites that contain a substantial portion of the same words. You can also perform a Google search to see if your content has been copied.
If you learn that someone really did steal a substantial amount of your work (your content and/or source code), then you should continue with the process below to determine how to handle the potential infringement.
Step #2 – Consider Filing A U.S. Copyright Registration
The next step is to consider filing a U.S. copyright registration.
You can earn a copyright in the U.S. by just creating the work, but you can get stronger copyright interests by filing a federal copyright registration with the U.S. Copyright Office.
For example, if you get a federal copyright registration before the particular infringement occurs, then you could get statutory damages and attorney fees awarded in addition to just the actual damages.
Before you are allowed to sue someone for copyright infringement in a U.S. federal court, you must have a federal copyright registration certificate to attach to your lawsuit.
You should consider filing a federal copyright registration on your most valuable products, but it would not be practical to file one for every single article that you write. And you probably wouldn’t spend the money to sue someone for copying one single article from you, anyway.
There are still other things you can do to stop the pirates in their tracks, even if they stole just a small article from you.
Step #3 – File a DMCA Complaint
Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, third party Internet service providers can also be held liable for copyright infringement if they receive a copyright infringement complaint and don’t investigate it.
So you can submit DMCA takedown complaints to the service providers that the potential pirate is using to host your content. Let’s look at an example.
Suppose someone stole an article of yours and put it on a web site hosted by GoDaddy. You could submit a DMCA complaint to GoDaddy to let GoDaddy know that you believe that particular person stole your work.
GoDaddy will then investigate the issue and will let the potential pirate know that you have filed the complaint. The work then has to be taken down, or the potential pirate has to respond and claim that the work is theirs.
This is just one example. You could also submit DMCA complaints to providers like Paypal, file sharing sites, etc. You can look on the ISP’s web site for a link to their DMCA policy. Their DMCA link is often found right at the bottom of their home page, or linked to from their Legal Policies.
You just need to make sure that whatever service provider you submit the DMCA complaint to is someone that is actually hosting or otherwise interacting with the potentially infringing content. Otherwise, they do not have any duty to look into the matter.
You also need to make sure that you don’t submit a DMCA complaint unless you really believe that your work was stolen. You can get intro trouble for submitting false complaints.
It is also important to be aware that if the potential pirate does respond back and claim the work is theirs, the service provider is off the hook and no longer has to deal with the issue. You would then have to hire an attorney to pursue the pirate through a cease & desist letter and/or legal action.
But that is generally not necessary. The DMCA process tends to resolve about 80-90% of the piracies, and is something you can generally do without hiring an attorney.
Step #4 – Consider Hiring An Attorney For More Advice
If you need additional help, you should consider hiring an intellectual property attorney to advise you on the options. They can help you understand whether there was really an infringement of your rights, and/or send cease & desist letters to the potential pirate. They can also assist you in pursuing legal action if necessary for your situation.
Here’s the bottom line. Just make sure someone actually infringed your rights before you go after them. But if they really stole from you, there are several ways you can stop them, including using the highly effective DMCA process.
Speaking of legal issues…
Did you know that there are 10 costly mistakes that are commonly made by businesses that cause serious problems, but that can easily be avoided. In fact, these mistakes are responsible for causing a large percentage of businesses to fail.
*Originally published as Issue # 160 – February 1, 2013