"They stole my site!"
"Another site copied my content!"
Sound familiar? In the Content Forum, by far the most common type of post is of the stolen site variety. There are some steps one take when this happens, and I'm hopeful that we can bring the collective wisdom of WebmasterWorld to bear on this all-too-frequent complaint.
I'll throw out a few ideas - feel free to chime in with your suggestions and descriptions of what has worked for you. One ground rule - let's focus on the post-theft phase, i.e., lets cover things you can do to prevent or prepare for content theft in a separate thread. CAUTION - we don't offer legal advice here at WebmasterWorld. Everyone's situation is different (particularly with our diverse geography here), and you should rely on your attorney, preferably an intellectual property attorney, for appropriate advice.
So, let's start with this unfortunate scenario: you are doing a search related to your site in your favorite search engine, and you spot a listing that looks like yours... but it's a different domain. You visit the site, and find your content has been ported to an unrelated domain. What do you do first? Here are some conversation-starters - feel free to add to them, disagree, etc. Note that the extent of research you do will depend on the nature of the violator - if you'll end up in court, you need far more complete documentation than if the violator is out of reach legally.
Learn about the perpetrators. At a minimum, check and document the following:
- WHOIS info for their domain - owner, contacts, nameservers, date registered.
- Determine the domain's IP address, and do a reverse IP lookup to find out who the IP address is registered to and hence who is hosting the domain.
- Make a copy of the offending site in its current condition using a site copy tool.
- Print dated page dumps or screenshots illustrating samples of the stolen content.
- If the site owners are identifiable, research them to find company contacts, etc.
- Identify the business partners of the ripoff site, i.e., if they are running affiliate ads, determine their affiliate partner(s) and their affiliate IDs.
- Check the Wayback Machine or other archive to see if they have a copy of the offending site; document the earliest date it appears. (Or, note that it doesn't appear at all.)
Assemble documentation for your site. In an ideal world, you'd already have all this ... but get what you can now.
- Print dated page dumps or screenshots of your site.
- Print WHOIS info showing when you registered your domain.
- Document when you first published your content. You may have written records of this, or perhaps your file creation dates are the original dates. Your host may have backup tapes that show early dates for your content. Check the Wayback Machine or other archive.
- Pull together any documents supporting your claim to the content - publication in written form with the author's byline, copyright documents, letters of transmittal from a content author, etc.
- In the U.S., one free or inexpensive method for dating documents is using a notary public (found in most banks and other locations). Check with your attorney to see if this is appropriate in your situation.
Identify any other proof. Sometimes the content may be altered to make it appear original - if you have anything unique in your content (e.g., a typographic error) that appears in the stolen version, document it as additional proof.
E-mail Notice. In a few cases, the offending content will be removed as soon as you let them know you have discovered it. For example, it may have been included in error or without the knowledge of management. In other cases, the perpetrator may not want to call attention to their site and may agree to remove the copied content. Therefore, many webmasters suggest an initial, non-threatening contact with the offending site. Unfortunately, an e-mail is a low-impact means of communication and this will probably fail in most cases. Its sole advantage is its immediacy: you can spot a problem and put the site owner on notice in a matter of minutes.
Written Notice. Written notice of copyright infringement is superior to e-mail, both from an impact and documentation standpoint. Let the owner of the offending site know that you have discovered your copyrighted content on his site, and provide a brief time-frame for its removal prior to your taking additional steps. You can decide whether to adopt a friendly or threatening tone for this communication. To increase the impact and to document receipt of your complaint, consider sending it via Certified Mail (U.S.), Federal Express, etc., and require a signature upon delivery. Having to sign for the document will add to the impression that you are serious. It will also provide documentation that your complaint was delivered.
Of course, maximum impact will come from a letter on lawyer's letterhead. Business owners hate to see attorneys get involved as they know that even if they win it will be expensive, and will often head off any perceived legal problems before they get into serious billable hours. Your lawyer should be able to write an appropriate letter at low cost, particularly if you do the up-front research and all the lawyer has to do is put the threatening words on paper.
Web Host/ISP Contact. If you are not making progress with the site owner, can't find the site owner, etc., the offending web site's host or connectivity provider may be convinced to step in. Success will depend on the firm and your documentation. Free hosts can often be convinced to take down copyright violations quickly; a site hosted on a private server connected to the Internet by a major pipe may be tougher to impact. Reference the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in your communications. Written notice is probably better, but many hosts/ISPs are set up with abuse coordinators that will process e-mail complaints.
Search Engine Contact. It's not really solving the problem, but search engines can sometimes be convinced to remove copyright-violating material from their index. Particularly if your stolen content is showing up in searches (or even outranking your original content), this is a good parallel track to pursue. Since content is often stolen to boost search rankings or referral volume, getting the thief de-indexed will remove a major motivation for his leaving the content in place. Search engines aren't always very good at handling individual complaints, but some members have reported success with this approach.
Business Partner Contact. If the site has identifiable business partners, e.g., affiliate links to individual firms or affilate aggregators, brand name merchandise, etc., consider putting these parties on notice that your copyrighted content is being used to market their products without authorization.
One final reminder - your approach should be suited to the value of your content, the scope of the copyright violation, and the nature/location of the violating site. In some cases, a full-court press involving IP attorneys is well-justified, while in others it may be overkill or simply unlikely to yield results.
Let's hear from some members now! What's worked? What hasn't?