Catching Copycats: Protecting Your Online Content

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but for many Web shop owners, particularly those who worked long and hard to create their copy, whether it be original content or a customer testimonial, it’s simply theft — and costly as it can deprive them of revenue.

The Ongoing Problem of Online Theft
“Theft is an ongoing problem for Business
,” said founder Janet Attard. “We publish a lot of content on our Web site — at least four new articles and three blog posts each week. A lot (but not all) of what we publish is our own original material, articles and blog entries we do not distribute and do not want distributed to other sites.

“We’ve had sites claim it’s okay to put our articles on their blogs or sites because they included a link to us,” she continued — and quickly added, “It’s not. We did not give them permission to reprint.”

Attard has also found that Business Know-How articles show up, verbatim, on blogs, without her permission. And she’s had material show up not only online, “but also in a print magazine the Web site owners published. I even found an entire chapter from one of my published books, that was published by a traditional publisher, copied and posted on someone’s Web site a couple of years ago.”

Business owner Nancy Brown, who runs Virtual Gal Friday, a virtual office management, bookkeeping, Web design and database development company, has also had several run-ins with online plagiarists. She even had someone lift an entire client testimonial, only changing Brown’s name (to their own).

Similarly, fellow small business owner, Donna Gunter, a self-described “Online Biz Resource Queen and Coach” who runs, had a writer for another site “blatantly rip off two of my articles and submit them under her byline.” Not only was it annoying, she said, but if the other writer was paid for the articles, that meant lost revenue.

These are just a few tales from the online plagiarism front, but they are indicative, sadly, of a growing trend.

“The problem is definitely growing,” stated Gideon Greenspan, whose company, Indigo Stream Technologies, created Google Alert and more recently Copyscape, a provider of services (some of which are free) “that protect your content against online plagiarism and theft.” Per Greenspan, “Copying content is extremely easy and can be done by anyone, anywhere and any time. Given the hours of work it takes to write and edit original content, the temptation to steal existing content is just too great for many people around the world. This threat can only be addressed by vigilant plagiarism search and detection.”

So what can business owners, particularly small e-commerce business owners, do to protect their precious online content and prevent theft?
According to small business attorney and entrepreneur Cliff Ennico, whose books include Small Business Survival Guide and The eBay Seller’s Tax and Legal Answer Book, there are basically four things.

Protecting Your Site from Online Plagiarism
“Number one, after the name of your site you should always put the letters ‘TM’ [for trademark] or ‘SM’ [for service mark],” he said. “That’s very important. What that does is it claims it as a common law trademark,” which means, “we don’t know if we can register this as a federal trademark or not, but it doesn’t matter. We’re treating it as a trademark. And if we see you using the same name for a similar product or service, we’ll be all over you with baseball bats. [He’s kidding about the baseball bats.] That’s step one.” (By the way, if you have a tagline that is unique to your business, it’s a good idea to stick a TM or SM after that too.)

The second thing you need to do, said Ennico is “at the bottom of every page in your Web site you should have a copyright notice. That is the c in a circle [©], the year, your name, and then the words ‘All rights reserved.'” And don’t just put the current year, he said. “Always give a range of years. Go back to the date that you first posted the Web site, the date that it first went live, and use that at the beginning of the range. That puts the world on notice that everything here is copyrighted and they cannot rip it off.” (Note: To see who actually first used a block of copy, use the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, which provides links to older versions of particular Web sites and pages.)

The third thing, “check the Web frequently.” Specifically, you need to search for blocks of text, not just the title of an article or piece of copy. “There’s actually a mathematical formula for this,” explained Ennico (though he could not recall it exactly). “The statistical odds that someone else will write the same 30 words as you are [something like] one divided by two to the thirtieth power. It’s infinitesimal.

“If someone has put up 30 words on their Web site that are word for word identical, as in an article, odds are they ripped that off,” he stated.
“So periodically, just take a paragraph, cut and paste it into your search engine, and see if that block of text shows up, because if it does, chances are that this person did not come up with that paragraph entirely on his own initiative.”

As an alternative, you can also use Copyscape, which allows users to “easily identify sites that have copied your content without permission, as well as those who are quoting your site” by simply typing their URL into the box on the home page. Copyscape then searches the Internet for copies of your content and produces a list with the top results, which you can click on to see a word-by-word comparison.

Site owners who want to automate the process can check out Copysentry, a service of Copyscape, which for $4.95 per month will automatically check the Web for up to 10 pages on your site each week.
(Additional pages cost another 25 cents per month.) For those who are really concerned about content theft, there’s Copysentry Professional, which checks for content abuses every day and costs $19.95 per month for up to 10 pages and an additional $1 per month for each additional page.

Copyscape also offers versions for sites with over 100 pages, as well as a Copyscape Premium, a paid service (5 cents per search) that “provides an unlimited number of professional grade plagiarism searches,” including searches for offline content that may have been illegally used online. (It’s “primarily used by people who purchase content from third parties and want to verify its originality, to make sure it was not simply lifted from somewhere else on the Web,” explained Greenspan.)

In addition to its paid services, Copyscape offers a free “Page protected by COPYSCAPE. Do not copy” banner, which Greenspan encourages all Web site owners to place on at least their home page, though putting it on every page or every content heavy page is not a bad idea.

Another good way to protect your valuable content (Ennico’s fourth
tip) is to make all articles or documents into read-only PDFs. “That way if someone wants to rip it off they have to go through the trouble of laboriously typing it from scratch, which most people will not do,”
explained Ennico. You can even password-protect PDFs.

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Catching Copycats: What to Do if Someone Steals Your Content
If despite copyrighting and trademarking your content it’s still being plagiarized, and chances are it could be, what do you do? Per Ennico, the first step is to politely yet firmly contact the owner of the other Web site, via e-mail, about the theft, citing the content in question. (If you cannot find contact information on the site, Copycape suggests emailing webmaster@ the domain name. You can also use a service like Whois to ferret out the owner of the

That’s what Brown, Gunter and Attard, who all have copyright notices on their sites and have used Copyscape, all did.

“I’ve found that sites where we can reach the owners, they will usually take the material down when we notify them by e-mail of the infringement,” said Attard. “It’s the sites where there isn’t contact info on the site and the site registration data is hidden on domain name lookups that are the biggest thorn in our side. Those are the ones we file DMCA [Digital Millennium Copyright Act] take-down notices for.”

If e-mails don’t work, your next step is to send a cease-and-desist letter to the Web site owner (if you can locate that person) — or have your attorney send one.

“If it’s really important stuff, have your attorney send the letter rather than you,” advised Ennico. “Most attorneys will do this for, like, an hour of their time, and it’s well worth it because a letter from an attorney delivered by certified mail strikes a lot more fear and terror into people.
It shows that you’re more serious about this and you might actually do something about it, which should frighten most people into taking the offending thing down or working out something with you.”

Speaking of working out something, Ennico says you can sometimes turn a case of plagiarism to your advantage by working out a deal that allows the other site to use your content — for a fee.

“Faced with the prospect of paying you a small amount of money or having a lawsuit, most people will pay you the small amount of money,” he said. Having your content or a link on another site, albeit with permission, can also be a good marketing tool.

Of course, in some cases, nothing you do may help, especially if someone has copied your layout or design, which is still a gray area. Logos and/or brands are different, especially if they are trademarked. For example, just because your name is Mary Kay and you developed your own line of cosmetics, you can’t call your site Mary Kay Cosmetics and/or have your site look like that other Mary Kay e-commerce site. That’s what known as “confusingly similar,” and it’s actionable.

Similarly, if the site that is using your content without your permission is a whole lot bigger than you and well funded, “they’re not going to be afraid of your cease-and-desist letter,” said Ennico. “Their attitude is going to be ‘bring it on.'” And you will have to make a determination as to how far you want to go.

The bottom line, said Ennico: “If you have a successful Web site, people are going to try to rip you off.” Another problem, he said, is that “to some extent, you can’t really own ideas. Even the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were borrowed from other documents. So you have to live with the fact that if you are in the business of creating original content, if you are successful, people are going to try to copy you in one form or another. And as long as they’re not trying to hold themselves out as you, and as long as they’re not doing things that are going to take sales away from you, there’s really nothing wrong with what they’re doing.”

Jennifer Lonoff Schiff is a regular contributor to, where this article first appeared, and runs a
blog for and about small businesses

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