The Born Freelancer explores copyright: Part 2
This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in the comments.
Yesterday I looked at some ways freelancers can register and protect their copyright. Today I’d like to offer some options for how to find out if your work has been stolen, and what you can do if you find out that it has.
I recently discovered a very useful, potentially invaluable, online resource tool called “Copyscape”. You can use it to track down your own online writing on other sites. The basic service is available for free – and it works just fine. I typed in the URL of one of my own websites and within seconds it found some of my own site’s work being used on another site! In this case, it was a very positive write-up using a long quotation of my work but well within the bounds of a legitimate review and so I didn’t mind at all. My original site was credited and linked. Copyscape also has more elaborate versions of their service available for a fee, which may be useful to you depending upon your individual circumstances and needs.
The site also lists a number of very useful resource sites that go into more depth about copyright law than I have room or expertise to do here, as well as what options exist for you if you discover someone has swiped your work and put it on their own site.
First you really need to decide what you want to have happen next. Do you want the offending site to merely credit you if they have failed to do so?
Sometimes a simple email request to them will do the trick. It’s always amazing to me how often folk grab content online without thought of attribution or credit. It may seem old fashioned but I would argue it is the very least anyone should be able to provide a content creator. It’s also your right as a copyright holder.
Perhaps you want them to pay you for using your content?
Again, a simple email request to the site would be the first line of attack.
Should they fail to offer you compensation, your next objective would most likely be to get them to take down your content.
Again, sometimes a simple email request will do the job. Often people don’t even realize that what they have done has infringed upon the rights of another.
Of course sometimes they just want to play hardball.
At this point you should definitely consult your relevant professional guild or union (if you are a member) for legal advice. They will often try to help out even if you are not a member if they have time. In the case of the CMG (Canadian Media Guild), they will most certainly “offer general advice” and ”discuss possible remedies” and in cases involving complex issues consult with the Guild’s own law firm, according to the CMG’s Keith Maskell.
You may also decide eventually to consult directly with a lawyer specializing in copyright matters.
Your lawyer’s first step could be to issue something called a “cease and desist” letter to the owner of the copyright infringing website. It would attempt to get them to remove your material immediately. The cost of getting a lawyer to write such a letter need not be unreasonable but the legal implications of sending such a letter need to be explained in detail to you first. And once you proceed down that road you may find yourself spending more and more on legal fees than you had intended. You may even end up in court (of course you will have right on your side but right sadly doesn’t always win in law.) Of course if you are prepared for this eventuality and have the financial resources to deal with it – go for it!
But, like many of, us you probably cannot afford a lawyer for anything but a life and death struggle. All is not lost! You may also have some recourse under what is known as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Under this American copyright act, which affects copyright on most of the internet, you may be able to get the infringing website’s ISP (service provider) to remove the content in question by sending them a “takedown” notice – similar to a cease and desist letter. Numerous companies exist online to provide this service — and numerous sites also purport to tell you how to create and send them yourself, which may help you get the job done without spending any money. This “takedown” ability under a clause of the DMCA has had a great deal of negative publicity over the years due to its abuse by fraudulent or illegitimate copyright holders successfully demanding the removal of content online over which they should have had no authority. The website chillingeffects.org documents this abuse and offers useful online resources for both those wishing to send such a takedown request and for those receiving one. However, for legitimate copyright holders attempting to deal with an unrepentant infringing site, this route may still be the quickest and most inexpensive way to get your copyrighted material off any offending site.
I believe in living as ethical a life online (and off!) as possible. When I want to reproduce a photo or use an extended quotation of another creator’s work on one of my own websites I always respect copyright and email that person first asking permission to do so. Do you know what? I’ve only been refused once so far. Most folk are so appreciative of the simple courtesy of asking that they readily offer their consent. In a few cases further information was required before consent was given. In many cases I found that the creators in question were incredibly helpful in directing me to even further online resources – often “introducing” me to others who also subsequently granted me permission to reproduce their work (while always giving appropriate credit and links, of course.) Yes, I know these things take time but really, so little when it comes down to it. And this kind of courtesy makes the online world a much more harmonious place to dwell. Pity not everyone else feels the same way.
For some freelancers, finding our creative work occasionally “shared” online by a “friendly” site is part of the price of putting our work on the internet in the first place. A simple friendly email requesting credit or a link back to your originating site or (when deemed necessary) a “takedown” may suffice. However, there should never be a need to accept blatant rip-offs of your work by “unfriendly” or uncooperative sites, especially if such use damages your professional reputation or if its illegal reproduction hurts you financially. You should never feel helpless or without options.
There are extensive resources available online for you to consult, some of which are linked from this site. This post is a necessarily simplified overview of the situation as I see it but one that I hope will give you some basic tools with which to fight back if and when required.
Have you ever had to challenge somebody to take down your copyrighted work on a site that reproduced it without your consent? Or have you ever been asked to take down someone else’s alleged copyrighted work from your own site? Please share your experiences using the “comments” feature below.