Detecting plagiarism and content theft is a relatively simple process for most types of content. Just plug your work into a few search engines and, odds are, you’ll come up with a list of people ripping off your hard work.
But detecting plagiarism does little good if there is no way to stop it. However, stopping plagiarism is a very different matter. Getting someone to stop using your work requires you to be a negotiator, a detective and a jurist.
Fortunately, if you know what to do and where to look for help, the process of stopping plagiarism can be relatively easy and painless. I, myself, rarely spend more than fifteen minutes on a case of plagiarism. With the proper tools in place, there is little reason anyone else should spend more time.
Cease and Desist Letters
The first course of action that many people take when dealing with plagiarism is called a cease and desist letter (C&D).
A C&D is a letter that demands that the recipient stops a certain action, in this case the publishing of the plagiarized material, in order to avoid some form of legal action. C&D letters are usually very sternly worded and are sent directly to the alleged plagiarist.
C&D letters can be very useful in cases where the infringement is relatively minor and was obviously perpetrated by a human. However, since plagiarism is more recently becoming an automated affair and contact information for plagiarists are both harder to find and less useful (many simply ignore such letters) it is losing its popularity in dealing with content theft matters.
However, if you decide that a C&D is the proper course of action in a case, it is important to get a solid C&D template and modify to suit your needs. It is important to note that every case a C&D becomes useful will be slightly different requiring different work names, site information and even a different tone.
As such, it may be wise to keep other templates handy to speed the process.
DMCA Notice to the Host
Use of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (PDF) to file a takedown notice with the host is the most common method of dealing with plagiarism online.
A section of the DMCA known as the safe harbor provisions provides Web hosts with protection from liability from infringement perpetrated by their users if they meet certain criteria. One of those criteria is to “expeditiously” remove content that is found to be infringing once properly notified.
The DMCA also sets forth a lengthy set of guidelines about what format such a notice should take and it is important, when crafting such a notice, to have a good template to ensure that you meet all of the requirements.
However, the first step in sending a DMCA notice is determining who the host is and who to send it to. If the plagiarist is hosted on a free service such as Myspace, Blogspot, etc. the host is the site he is using. If the plagiarist has their own domain, the host is whoever runs the server, that can be determined using a site such as Domain Tools. There, under “server data” you can usually find out who is running the server on which the site resides.
From there, you can either send an email or a fax and, if the notice is proper, the work will generally be removed in 24-72 hours. It is worth noting that DMCA polices vary from company to company and that the DMCA is a U.S.-only law. However, many other countries have similar provisions, including the E.U.
DMCA Notice to Search Engines
In addition to providing safe harbor to hosts, the DMCA also provides it to search engines and other “information location tools“. Thus, it is possible to send a very similar notice to each of the major search engines and have the plagiarized content removed from their indexes.
Though filing a DMCA notice against a search engine will not remove the content from the Web, it will eliminate both the benefit of the plagiarist using the content and prevent them from achieving a higher rank than you by using your own content.
This can be a useful step in cases where the host is in a country that has no DMCA-like law and both the host and the plagiarist have been uncooperative.
Notifying Advertising Networks
Finally, as more and more plagiarism is being performed with a pure profit motive in mind, it is becoming more and more important to consider contacting any and all advertising and affiliate networks the plagiarist is using.
This is especially important in cases, such as spam blogging, where the content theft is both very large in quantity and driven solely by profit.
Though advertising networks are not mentioned in the DMCA and are not covered under any specific law, most legitimate services do not want their members to engage in copyright infringement and have strict policies against it. Since DMCA language is so familiar to most dealing with copyright issues on the Web, mosts advertising networks use a policy that mirrors the DMCA closely in handling such matters.
Currently, Google Adsense and Yahoo! Publisher Network, Adbrite and most other ad networks have copyright policies in place to receive reports of infringement and deal with members that violate copyright law.
This can be an excellent step in cases where it is clear that the plagiarist had a purely profit-oriented motive and that they likely have many other sites containing stolen content.
If you decide to file such a notice, it is important to file it and let it be resolved before you notify the Web host. If the page is down before the advertising network can see the problem, there is no action that they can take.
All in all, there are many different ways to handle copyright infringement on the Web. However, of all of the methods above, the DMCA notice is probably by far and away the most common. It is effective, fast and very easy.
However, it is important to make sure that you use the DMCA properly. Using it in a way that is not consistent with its intended usage can cause very serious legal trouble and can create a tremendous backlash.
Most cases of plagiarism on the Web will not carry this kind of stigma, but it is important to be aware of these issues and act accordingly. The DMCA is already a very controversial law, largely due to provisions other than the safe harbor ones, and abuse of it is not tolerated.
The DMCA is a powerful tool, that is why it is so important to make sure it is used for good.
Here are some tips to help you get through this process as easily as possible:
- Use Templates: If you find yourself using the DMCA or C&D letters regularly, keep a template of it in your email client. If you use FireFox and Webmail, use the signature extension.
- Preserve Evidence: Use a bookmarking site like Furl to keep a cached copy of the plagiarist’s site. This is good for your own records and if a dispute comes up later. Though not evidence by itself, it can be handy to have.
- Beware Going Public: Going public with an accusation of plagiarism is risky. It opens up defamation issues as well as a host of other problems. At times it may be the right move, but it should always be done with caution.
- Know When to Call An Copyright Attorney: Though the vast majority of plagiarism cases on the Web can be easily resolved without an attorney. Cases involving large sums of money, works that are registered with the U.S. Copyright Office and cases with very large distribution may be worth contacting a lawyer. When in doubt, give one a call. Consultations are usually free and the worst they can say is “No”.
- Use Licensing Wisely: By using Creative Commons Licensing, you can avoid persuing people that are merely reusing your content and focus on those that are plagiarizing it or using it for commercial gain. Though this isn’t right for everyone, it can reduce the burden of fighting content theft while increasing legitimate distribution.
Note: I am not a lawyer and nothing in this article is to be taken as legal advice. Though it is based upon extensive research into copyright law and the DMCA, it is not to be taken as legal truth. If you have a question about these issues, it would be best to take it up with an attorney.
Jonathan Bailey writes at Plagiarism Today, a site about plagiarism, content theft and copyright issues on the Web.