Running a small business is an adventure. It’s fun, but it also forces you to wear many hats, from secretary, to CEO, and everything in between. One of the least pleasurable tasks, in my opinion, is handling the legal aspects of the business. While my business is doing well, it isn’t large enough to keep a lawyer on retainer. I can handle small time tasks such as reading contracts or incorporating a small business. But if it is anything more involved, I need to do some research and weigh my options before I call on the services of a lawyer. This also means I need to continually research topics as they become relevant to my business and try to remain up to date as things change.
One area I run into frequently is copyright violations. Many people wrongly assume that information on the Internet isn’t copyrighted. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are also other popular misconceptions including the idea that it is legal, and even acceptable, to republish a website’s RSS feed without permission (an RSS feed is a method of distributing content in an easy to read manner which allows individuals to subscribe to regular website updates). Unfortunately, these misconceptions are all too common and copyrighted content is frequently infringed upon, either due to lack of knowledge, or due to blatant theft. Regardless of the reason, it’s important that website owners, writers, photographers, musicians and other copyright holders protect their rights.
Protecting Your Copyrights
I recently had a situation involving someone republishing my content without my consent. I won’t go into the details other than to say that I politely contacted the infringing party and asked him to remove my copyrighted content from his site. After initial refusals by the other party and additional action on my part, my copyrighted content was removed from the other site.
What is a copyright violation?
This is the definition of copyright infringement according to the US copyright Office:
“As a general matter, copyright infringement occurs when a copyrighted work is reproduced, distributed, performed, publicly displayed, or made into a derivative work without the permission of the copyright owner.”
This was the situation which I recently experienced – content from one of my websites was republished, in full, without my permission. Unfortunately, the person infringing upon my copyrighted works had a misunderstanding of copyright rules and believed he could republish articles from my site at will, which is not the case.
Not all copyright violations are as straight forward as the situation I recently experienced. Copyright rules actually can be fairly complex (see title 17, U. S. Code for a full rundown of US copyright laws) and there are entire law firms devoted to copyright protection.
What About Fair Use?
In some cases, it is acceptable to use a small portion of a copyrighted work without violating copyrights. This is called Fair Use. According to the US Copyright Office, there are “four factors to be considered in determining whether or not a particular use is fair:”
- The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
- The nature of the copyrighted work
- The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
- The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work
Notice how I used a quote, listed the four items, and linked to the source? Using a small example, as I did here, would be an example of Fair Use. That would not have been the case had I copied the entire contents of the page and published it on my site.
Fair Use does not include full scale publication of a copyrighted work without permission. It also does not cover derivative works, which occur when someone uses a copyrighted work to create something new. A good example of this is fan fiction, which is a popular form of books which are created using the same characters or same world as an original series. For example, I couldn’t write a Star Wars book and publish it without permission from the copyright holders. Fan fiction is a fun way to continue a series (think Star Wars, Star Trek, James Bond, and similar series), but most of these works are commissioned by the original copyright holders and written with permission and under controlled terms.
Why You Should Protect Your Copyrights
Protecting your copyrighted content is important – first of all, it is yours. If you don’t give permission for someone else to use it, they shouldn’t be able to profit from your hard work. Even if they are not making any money from it, that doesn’t make it right, or even legal. Copyright infringements are harmful to the copyright holders as it can affect your income, branding, website traffic, Search Engine Optimization (through duplicate content issues), and more. It can be especially harmful if a competitor infringes upon your copyright.
Copyright Violations as They Affect Bloggers and Small Online Businesses
Copyright infringement is a major problem for bloggers and other small businesses. As mentioned above, part of the problem is that many people misinterpret or simply don’t understand copyright laws. The other problem is that many people simply don’t care, and blatantly disregard copyrights and knowingly steal and publish copyrighted content.
Unfortunately, republishing copyrighted content is incredibly easy to do with just a few scripts. This has become so prevalent that it has created entire industries and even lead to the creation of new words, such as splogs (spam + blogs = splogs) and scrapers. These sites are harmful to legitimate Internet publishers.
How to Handle Scrapers and Other Copyright Infringements
If you run a website, it won’t be long before you find someone stealing your content. It will happen if it hasn’t already. The first thing I recommend is contacting the other party via their e-mail address or contact form and politely inform them about the issue. If the site doesn’t make this information available you can still try to track the owner down by finding the web host or the domain registrar.
Many times people are unaware they are breaking the law, or they may be a new owner to a website and not be aware some of the content is copyrighted by another party. In many cases, people will remove the content without a fuss.
In other situations, you either can’t find the owner, they will ignore you, or they will fight you kicking and screaming. When this happens, you need to move beyond a simple e-mail. Your next step could be to send a formal cease and desist letter, or you could skip that step and go straight to the DMCA notice.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)
Filing a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) notice with the web host is a course of action which might be appropriate here. This is not something to take lightly, however, since it essentially requires the host to shut down the page which is infringing upon your copyright, and since most hosts don’t have access to change one page on a site, they often disable access to the entire site or server. This is why I always recommend a polite e-mail before moving up the chain.
After you send the DMCA notice, the web host will often shut down the site, then contact the owner and forward the notice to the site owner, who then can determine their course of action – either to remove the content, or file a counter DMCA notice, which essentially states they don’t believe they are violating the copyright.
Note 1. Using a DMCA notice is only good when the site is hosted in the US or treaty countries, though many other countries have similar laws.
Note 2. Filing a DMCA notice or counter DMCA notice isn’t a step to take lightly since you are required to make legal statements regarding ownership of the copyright.
Where to Go For More Information about Protecting Your Copyrights
I will be the first to admit that I am not an expert on this topic and none of this constitutes legal advice. I have done my best to ensure this information is accurate and informative, but this is a complex topic which can’t be covered completely in one article (or even a full college semester!). Here are some of the resources which I found most useful in my research and may help you if you find yourself in a similar situation.
Jonathan Bailey @ Plagiarism Today. Jonathan Bailey is the head of a Copyright Consulting Services firm, and the owner of Plagiarism Today, which is a helpful blog in understanding how copyright laws work. I spoke with him during the course of researching this article and his experience and knowledge on plagiarism and copyright protection impressed me greatly. Though Jonathan is not a lawyer, he has a large amount of experience when it comes to finding plagiarized content and getting it removed from infringing websites. I highly recommend reading Plagiarism Today for more information about protecting your copyrights, copyright infringement, plagiarism, and related topics, or contacting Jonathan if you have the need for copyright consulting services.