Dealing with website content theft

Website content theft is a common problem. Quality content can take a lot of time and effort (or money) to create – and it can be stolen in seconds by a child with a computer and a internet connection.

Legal proceedings are the ultimate weapon, the nuclear option, in your armoury against website content theft. But before issuing proceedings, you should consider in detail the other options open to you.

I should say that the title to this post is misleading (at least to an English lawyer). Theft is a criminal offence. Whilst the unauthorised copying of website content will usually constitute a civil infringement of copyright, it will not usually constitute a criminal infringement of copyright. So, it's unlikely that the police or trading standards officers will assist you if someone copies material from your website. There are, however, a number of things you may be able to do on your own, without incurring the expense of a lawyer.

First, you should consider contacting the person responsible for the website asking for the material to be removed. If the website in question does not have a contact email address or HTML form, you can perform a WHOIS search (e.g. at Domain Tools) and write to the email address(es) given.

If that does not work, you should consider writing to the ISP hosting the website. You will usually be able to identify the servers hosting the site (and the relevant ISP) from the WHOIS search.

If the ISP is in the USA, you should make your notice to the ISP compliant with the requirements of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (see Wikipedia). A list of designated agents for the service of DMCA notices is available on the US Copyright Office website.

If the ISP is in the EU, you should point out in your notice that, as a result of your notice, the ISP will lose any protection under the Ecommerce Directive that it may have had against proceedings relating to the infringing contract.

In any case, your communications with the website owner and ISP should make it clear: (i) what the infringing material is; (ii) where the infringing material can be found; (iii) your full name and contact details; and (iv) details of your rights in respect of the material (e.g. that you the author or an exclusive licensee of the material). The appropriate degrees of politeness, aggression, etc will depend upon the circumstances.

If neither the website owner or the ISP responds – or if neither responds helpfully – that is usually the time to consider legal proceedings.

Comments

Obviously, the advice here is very sound but one resource I would add is the United States Copyright Office list of designated agents for filing a DMCA complaint. It is a handy one-stop shop for most the information you need and can be found at copyright.gov. Though it isn't perfect and I still prefer to use the ISPs site when practical, it is a handy tool when needed... Thank you for posting this great article!

Thanks for your comments. I've added a link to the DMCA agents list.

Excellent advice - our website has been near completely stolen by two other sites in recent months. They had taken all of the graphics and content. Our first port of call was Google as we didn't want the duplication to cause issues with our excellent search engine positions...

How do you know if someone's claim to copyright is genuine? I run several forums and I've received an email claiming particular posts are from their website. The content is on their website, but how can I tell that this also wasn't copied from elsewhere? If someone accuses you of copyright theft do you just have to take their word for it?

There's no central registry of copyright ownership, unlike e.g. with patents or registered trade marks.  So when someone makes a claim, you have a choice: investigate the claim properly, take their word for it, or ignore the claim. The problem is that a proper investigation can be very difficult, and ignoring the claim can lead to liability.  If the claim has any plausibility at all, the precautionary approach would be to remove the material.  NB In some circumstances, particularly where there is an old work produced/published overseas, demonstrating copyright ownership can be a legal nightmare.

Our first port of call was Google as we didn’t want the duplication to cause issues with our excellent search engine positions…

Having been the victim of content theft from both actual blog content stealing AND image theft, we now have much better knowledge when dealing with the situation and in the one incident since, we got it fixed extremely quickly to say the least.

My industry in very competitive. I have a company who is taking my content, mildly re-spinning it so that it doesn't make any sense to read, then reposting it on external blogs with backlinks to their site. The badly written article still has my name and company name, and if anyone reads these it completely destroys my credibility. Is there perhaps some other action that could be taken due to damage to my brand and reputation by other people posting content that I have not written but using my name and company name?

A number of different legal rights could come into play here: the copying/publication of the content may constitute copyright infringement; the publication of the content may be libellous (or maliciously false); and the mis-use of your name could be a breach of Section 84 of the CDPA 1988 - the moral right against false attribution. The appropriate course of action will depend upon the exact circumstances. One common approach would be to send take-down notices to the appropriate ISP(s) and the search engines, and at the same time send a letter of claim to the competitor. In any case, you should take advice from a solicitor specialising in internet/IP disputes.

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