It’s a business owner’s nightmare.
You complete a Google search, only to find that another website ranks in the SERPs with content stolen from your site.
It’s even worse when that stolen content starts to outrank your own.
If you’ve ever had this happen to you, then you understand how terrible it feels. You put a lot of time and money into your business and you don’t want someone stealing your hard work to use for their personal gain. This hurts your business and is extremely frustrating.
You may question what to do when people swipe your content. Stealing original works, including blog posts, articles, podcasts, and videos is called copyright infringement — and it’s illegal.
There are several methods you can use to address this problem.
Often the solutions are both quick and effective. Your options include: lawsuits, Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedowns, copyright strikes, and the Small Claims Copyright Board.
What is protected under copyright?
If you intend to take action under copyright infringement, you need to understand what is protected.
Copyright protects original works of authorship and, in the United States, copyright protects these eight areas:
- Literary works
- Musical works
- Dramatic works
- Pantomimes and choreographic works
- Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
- Motion pictures and other audiovisual works
- Sound recordings
- Architectural works
In the case of online businesses, software and computer programs are categorized under literary works, and online courses span multiple categories.
Under copyright law, the owner of these types of work has exclusive rights related to those works.
These entitlements include the right to — or authorize others to:
- Reproduce/copy those works
- Prepare derivative works based on those works (turning a book into an online course)
- Sell, rent, or lease the works
- Use in a public performance (such as giving a presentation)
- Display the work publicly (e.g., posting an article on your website)
Multiple rights can be violated with respect to your copyright.
For example, if someone copies one of your blog posts, puts it on their website, and sells it to others, then they are in violation of your right to copy, display, and sell your work.
Owning your copyright
In order to make a copyright claim and protect your original works from theft, you need to know how to own your copyright.
Under copyright law in the United States, you are protected by copyright the moment your work is fixed in a tangible medium of expression.
This means that, as soon as you write something down, make a recording, or hit the save button on a document or on your website, you are protected by copyright law.
You don’t need to register your work with the copyright office. You also don’t need to put the © symbol on your work to have protection under copyright law.
However, you receive extra safeguards when you register your work and use the © symbol. In some cases, it’s worth implementing these extra measures, as you’ll see below.
Registering your copyright could maximize your recovery
While you only need to create work in a tangible medium of expression (hit that save button) to receive the protection of US copyright law, you may still want to register your work and use the © symbol. Doing these two things gives you additional security and can maximize any award you obtain if you decide to sue.
There are limitations on lawsuits when you register your copyright after an infringement occurs.
If you register your copyright after an infringement occurs, you are entitled to compensation only for any losses you incurred and any profits the infringer made from using your materials.
Statutory damages are only recoverable if you have registered your copyright before the infringement.
Damages normally range from $750 to $30,000 per infringement, but might be as low as $200 or as high as $150,000 in extraordinary circumstances. The amount awarded is determined by the court hearing your case.
You can also qualify to recover attorney fees when you register your copyright in advance of an infringement.
You can register your copyright through the registration portal of the U.S. Copyright Office.
Many businesses don’t register their copyright before infringement occurs. However, if you own a growing business and/or have produced valuable works, it is worth considering registering your copyright immediately.
Fair use is fair game
When determining whether or not someone has stolen your original work, it’s also important to keep in mind the principle of fair use.
Fair use allows the unlicensed use of original works in limited circumstances.
Courts decide fair use claims on a case-by-case basis.
Using small excerpts of a work to make a point is fine in the context of a larger article, but taking large chunks of someone’s work and annotating it is not. It is always best to get permission from the copyright holder first, which should prevent potential litigation.
A case involving the creator of LeBron James’ Tattoos against the video game company Take-Two was dismissed under fair use. This was because the tattoos (recreated in the video game) were shown extremely briefly, and were rapidly moving when shown.
The tattoos were also not used in any of the game makers’ marketing materials, but only to represent the characters in the gameplay itself.
Protecting yourself when outsourcing content
If other people create content for you, then you must ensure that you protect yourself.
This is a commonly misunderstood area of the law.
If you get this wrong, the person who created the work can own the copyright, which means you lose the rights to the work you purchased.
Any work created by your employees in the normal course of their job is considered work for hire. As their employer, you own the copyright for that work.
However, when you hire freelancers and independent contractors, it is extremely important that you protect your copyright through a contract.
Without a contract, explicitly stating that the freelancer assigns the copyright to you, they still own the copyright.
Sometimes this assignment of rights is provided for in the contract terms on popular freelancing platforms like Upwork, but you need to check this yourself.
Assignment of copyright must be done in writing and signed by the person or entity who created the work.
Legalzoom has a thorough checklist that shows what should be included in a copyright assignment document.
Protect your business by enforcing your copyright
Copyright law means that you can protect your business by enforcing your copyright. There are several methods you can use for this.
It’s important to maintain a cool head when deciding which path to take. Some methods, like lawsuits, are costly to pursue and involve a tremendous amount of time and emotional energy. Other methods, like a DMCA takedown, are quick and effective.
The method you pursue depends on the extent of the copyright violation, and the amount of damage done to you and your business.
1. Protecting your copyright with a lawsuit
Lawsuits are commonly used when someone infringes on your copyright. If you have adequate proof of an infringement, then you can file a lawsuit in a federal court.
The problem with lawsuits is that they are expensive and time-consuming.
The possibility exists to receive both statutory damages and reimbursement of your attorney’s fees if your copyright was registered in advance of the infringement.
But you may not recover any of this money until the conclusion of a long and drawn-out court battle.
There is also a risk that you lose the suit and become responsible for the defendant’s legal fees too. As a business owner, you have to decide if pursuing a lawsuit is worth the time, money, and attention it requires.
It may be worth filing a lawsuit if the copyright infringement is blatant and costly to your business, but you might want to consider the alternative actions below.
2. Protecting your copyright in “Small Claims Copyright Court”
A new alternative to lawsuits is the Copyright Claims Board (CCB).
The board comprises a three-member tribunal that helps settle copyright claims of up to $30,000. The Copyright Claims Board process is easier than filing a federal copyright lawsuit and doesn’t require a lawyer.
One of the biggest caveats with the Copyright Claims Board is that it’s voluntary – meaning that both parties must agree to participate.
This is not as untenable as it may seem. The CCB is far less costly than commencing a lawsuit and the award of damages is limited in comparison with amounts awarded in a lawsuit judgment.
Both the defendant and plaintiff often find the CCB process an attractive alternative to a federal lawsuit.
3. Other ways to protect your copyright
If receiving compensation for a copyright violation doesn’t interest you, or you simply want the infringement to cease, there are other options available:
- DMCA Takedown: You can pursue a DMCA takedown, resulting in the removal of your content from an infringer’s website or internet platform. This is done by completing a simple form at the DMCA website and paying a fee, or by contacting the company that hosts the content.
But, contacting the hosting company is usually faster and easier than pursuing action through the DMCA site.
For instance, you can ask Google to directly remove content from its various products.
If your content appears on another website, use the Hosting Checker on Sitechecker to locate the host.
Once you find the host, go to their website and search the footer or contact pages for the words “abuse” or “complaints.” This method normally takes you to the right place to file a DMCA takedown request.
- YouTube video removal: If you believe that your content was illegally used in a YouTube video, you can issue a copyright strike on YouTube. You should review YouTube’s policies before submitting any takedown request.
- The simple ask: Your last option involves asking the infringer to cease using your material, and to remove it from wherever it was published, e.g., their website, printed materials or video.
If you want a fast and easy way to remove your copyrighted works from a thief’s site, then a polite request is often the best way to go.
It doesn’t work every time, but it works often enough to make it an effective option.
Copyright Law Summary
Eight different types of original work are protected under copyright law.
If your work falls under one of those categories, you are automatically protected by copyright the moment your work is fixed in a tangible medium of expression.
However, there are several areas of copyright law that commonly fool people:
- You don’t have the right to receive the maximum award granted for copyright infringement unless your copyright was registered in advance of that infringement.
- Your copyright can be owned by the person who created the work for you. You must have a signed contract that assigns the copyright to you.
- You have several options for recourse when someone infringes on your copyright.
If you have specific questions about copyright law (as it relates to your circumstances), we recommend contacting your lawyer to discuss possible solutions.