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What to Do When Someone Steals Your Work

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How do you feel when someone steals your ideas?

At some point in your freelance career, you may find yourself successful at what you do. Chances are, if you're reading this, that you have or that you're on your way. Unfortunately, one common indicator of success is the proportion of individuals who attempt to copy, borrow or steal original content from you. Realistically, this has likely already happened to you at some point in the past without your knowledge.

I've been frustrated by this numerous times. I've had carefully crafted text that I've sculpted over the years lifted from my website and used without my consent on a competitor's site. Occasionally, I've stumbled across an entire duplication of one of my original website designs, something that I consider less than flattering.

You'd think that this would get easier with time. It doesn't. It's nothing short of a violation of your hard work. Knowing that someone else is benefiting on your behalf and at your expense is a royal pain and, from a business perspective, a serious threat. Knowing how to prepare, identify, deal with and respond to this type of copyright infringement is quickly becoming one of the necessary skills for any serious business owner.

How to Prepare

At a minimum, make sure to include the following phrase at the bottom of your creations, substituting Your Legal Name with your name and the year with the first year that your content was copyrighted in:

Copyright 2009 Your Legal Name. All Rights Reserved.

Making it Legal

If you simply leave things as is, you're technically using what some people refer to as a "poor man's copyright". What you're lacking is an enforceable copyright. To do this, you'll need to actually file your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. Since some types of intellectual property such as websites change and adapt to demand constantly, you may need to re-file your copyright after each significant change, or simply re-file every year. The cost is low, yet the benefit is significant.

You'll also want to make sure that you have an established business relationship with a lawyer who can represent you. If you're operating as a formal business, the time to find a company lawyer is not when things start to fall apart. You'll want someone who is familiar with your business and willing to go to bat for you should you end up needing to enforce a serious copyright violation. Your lawyer can also assist with the filing of the copyright paperwork if you'd rather not deal with the process. Regardless, you need a good small business lawyer.

The Psychology of Influence

While having the basic copyright phrase on your content helps you legally, it isn't very effective at actually preventing someone intent on copying part or all of your website. One common practice is to add a phrase similar to the following below your copyright notice:

No part of this website may be reproduced, distributed, performed, publicly displayed, or made into a derivative work without the permission of Your Legal Name.

I've found that, in practice, this doesn't really work. And here's why: This warning is more of a description of what is not allowed, something that is unlikely to be a psychological motivator for someone already predisposed to content theft.

A slightly more effective approach is to use a phrase that implies monitoring as opposed to simply stating the rules. I'm a big fan of where you can either use one of their embedded badges or simply use the phrase, "Page Protected by Copyscape. DO NOT COPY". I've found that this is more likely to prevent theft than the mere mention of What Not To Do. Regardless of the approach you take, your goal should be to indicate the presence of active monitoring.

How to Stay Vigilant

There are more monitoring programs available than you can shake a stick at. Having said that, I find an effective method is to choose one or more phrases that are relatively unique to your work, place them in quotes and set up a Google Alert to notify you automatically when a match is found. Another option is to manually scan for duplication using Copyscape's search feature or to sign up for one of their automated monitoring services.

How to Respond

So you've discovered that someone has duplicated part or all of your content. How do you best respond? Freelancers tend to have limited resources and budgets, and your response needs to keep this reality in check.

The first step should always involve taking a snapshot of the duplicate content, either as a hard copy, or as a PDF. You'll want this ammunition should you ever need to take action further down the road. The Internet Archive is another great resource for capturing past website content, however it's not comprehensive across short spans of time and won't necessarily include the offender's website.

Your very next step should be to motivate the thief by the mere act of being caught in the act. Send a short, polite e-mail to the infringer asking for the material to be removed. You'd be surprised at how often this works! What won't work is if you sabotage your chances for success by sending a nasty, angry or threatening e-mail. Instead of stimulating their "I've been caught" reflex, you'll be triggering a more reactive response. In practice, I've found this to work with a significant number of violators.

If this fails to get a response, you'll need to take things up a notch by sending a formal "Cease and Desist" letter to the owner of the website. If the infringement occurred online, you can typically get the mailing address of the owner from or directly from their website. Write a simple, professional letter similar to the following:

I have noticed the strong similarity of elements of your web site to my company's web site, Your use of material from our site constitutes an infringement of our copyright and therefore subjects you to substantial liability under federal copyright law. Please immediately remove that material from your site and refrain from any further use of any material derived from our web site.

We would prefer to promptly resolve this matter without legal action and trust that your prompt cooperation will allow us to do so. Please send me confirmation that the infringing material will be immediately removed from your web site so that this matter can be resolved. Thank you for your cooperation.

You will want to consult your company's lawyer to confirm that this language is appropriate for your industry.

What if nothing happens?

Your next step should be to file a notice of Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) infringement with Google and the other major search engines. This involves a fair degree of work and is not as simple as you'd think. This will, however, remove the offending site from the search engine results, effectively neutering the majority of the offender's potential referrals.

At this point, you'll need to ask yourself the Million Dollar Question: Is the presence of this duplicate content more of a financial threat to you than the cost of having your lawyer file an injunction? If the answer is no, you've gone as far as you can probably go. However, if it has a potential to seriously disrupt your business, you'll want to saddle up with your lawyer. Another litmus test for this is likely to be the geographical location of the culprit versus the geographical scope of your service area. If you provide a service regardless of location, then you'll likely need to take legal action no matter what.

While nothing in life is 100% certain, hopefully these suggestions and insights will be of use to your freelance life. As with all things, your mileage may vary.


  1. The Internet Archive
  2. The U.S. Copyright Office
  3. Copyscape
  4. Google Alerts
  5. Responding to Plagiarism
  6. WHOIS Lookup
  7. Google DMCA Notification Process
  8. DMCA Notification Process

You should always seek independent financial advice and thoroughly read terms and conditions relating to any insurance, tax, legal, or financial issue, service, or product. This article is intended as a guide only.

Note: A few times a month we revisit some of our reader’s favorite posts from throughout the history of FreelanceSwitch. This article was first published May 13th, 2009, yet is just as relevant and full of useful information today.

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