Although the Internet has lost much of the Wild West character it had in its early days, there is still no shortage of bandits and rustlers out there who will happily take advantage of your hard work, using the content you’ve written to their own advantage. It can cost less than a cup of coffee to source a poor quality article, but good content that will both engage and perform well in the SERPs is expensive. Many unscrupulous site owners want to reduce their costs and will quite happily scrape, copy-and-paste or otherwise duplicate the content of good online writers.
Of course, this is wrong in principle. But if it was just a low-traffic rogue site duplicating your content, it would be no big deal for most businesses and not worth the effort of remediation. However, content theft can have a serious impact on a site’s traffic and, therefore, the bottom line. Google has gotten better at crawling the web quickly enough to catch an article’s initial publication and privilege the domain on which it first appears. But it's not unheard of for stolen content to end up outranking the original. When that happens, your site is footing the bill for another site’s traffic.
There is a lot of confusion around copyright and plagiarism among website owners. The first thing to make clear is that copying content is not really theft; it is copyright infringement, which is a different legal principle. That distinction matters because, in some cases, the law provides fair use exceptions where apparent infringement is allowed. I’m not going to go too deeply into the details of copyright law here, except to clarify a couple of points.
You can find more details about copyright law and fair use exemptions on the U.S. Copyright Office site.
The ideal solution to dealing with content theft would be to prevent it in the first place. Unfortunately, that’s all but impossible. It is possible to make it difficult for the bad guys to copy and paste your content, but that won’t deter a committed or technically adept person from scraping a site.
Most measures designed to prevent copying also make for a poor experience for site users by disabling their ability to use their browser’s contextual menu on your site, for example.
Once content is out there on the web, it’s up for grabs by anyone dishonest enough to make use of it.
If you can’t stop malefactors from duplicating content, you need to have some system in place to find out when it is stolen:
Simply copy a snippet of your text you think is unique, and paste it into Google Search surrounded by quotation marks (“like this”). You can then go through each result to check whether they are duplicates of content on your site.
To make things easier for yourself, you can embed somewhere in your copy a bit of text that is unique to your content, and then search for that.
Googling to find duplicates is not scalable—and it's certainly time consuming. To automate the process, you can use Google Alerts. Enter each of your snippets into Google Alerts, and the service will send you email updates of new content that matches.
This method is not entirely reliable. Google Alerts doesn’t seem to get much love from its developers, and a lot of users have been complaining about it not working as well as it should.
Copyscape is a service designed for exactly the purpose we have in mind. Using its web interface, you can enter a URL, and the service will let you know if the content exists elsewhere on the Internet. The premium Copysentry service will monitor the web for indications of copied content and email you alerts.
Keep in mind not all copying is infringement. Even if a site has copied your content—in order to critique it, for example—it may be protected by fair use exceptions, even if your SEO is being damaged.
If you’ve determined your content has been copied and there is no valid fair use exemption, it’s time to do something about it. Victims of copyright infringement have several possible remedies.
Copyright infringement is annoying, but in many cases it is no more than that. If the copied content isn’t having any negative impact on your SEO position or overall traffic, there’s no need to do anything about it.
In some cases, it may actually be good for your traffic. If a high-traffic domain substantially duplicates your content and includes a backlink along with it, it’s possible the duplicated copy will generate more traffic than the original would by itself. The backlink could also be valuable in its own right.
If you’ve established copied content is harming your site, the first step should always be to contact the webmaster of the site in question and let him or her know their site is hosting infringing content. Determine what you think is a reasonable remedy. You may want the content taken down altogether, or you may be satisfied with a backlink and adequate attribution. Many sites may not even be aware that the content originates elsewhere. Be polite, but firm.
If you get no response or the webmaster refuses to remove the content, then escalate the firmness of your communication. Include in your email relevant information about copyright infringement and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, firmly stating you are prepared to take legal action if the issue is not resolved to your satisfaction and that frequent copyright infringers are subject to penalties from search engines.
Make sure you keep copies of the email you send and any responses as evidence that you’ve made every reasonable effort to have the content removed. You should also take screenshots of the infringing content in place.
If the infringing site still refuses to remove your content, it’s time to bring out the big guns. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act makes it the responsibility of web hosting companies and others to remove infringing content. I’m not a lawyer, so if you need detailed advice about the DMCA, this isn’t the place. However, Google makes it fairly easy to report infringing content.
Discovering the infringer’s web hosting can be slightly more tricky, but whois can help. Once you discover their hosting company, Google its name and “DMCA,” which should lead you to page that details the company’s process for DMCA takedown requests.
In many cases, that will be sufficient to have the content removed. The target of a takedown notice has the right to appeal, but for many infringers, it’s easier to just move on. If the thief does fight, you may want to consult a lawyer as to the best course of action.
If you’re a successful publisher of online content, you’re almost certain to experience copyright theft. Following the steps outlined in this article should help you confidently and effectively ensure that your handwork isn’t taken advantage of by less scrupulous individuals.
Have you ever been a victim of content theft? Share your experience in the comments.
Photo Credit: pelican
Graeme Caldwell works as an inbound marketer for Nexcess, a leading provider of Magento and WordPress hosting. Follow Nexcess on Twitter at @nexcess, and check out the company's tech/hosting blog.