Piracy, Theft, and Copyright

Although my office doesn’t handle litigation (lawsuits) and contested matters, I often receive questions from authors (and small publishers) about piracy and related issues.

The Internet offers authors more chances for discovery, and better contact with readers, than almost any other tool. Unfortunately, it also gives criminals an equally-opportune chance to steal an author’s work. (Let me be clear: people who pirate, copy, or share an author’s copyrighted work without permission are criminals. There are no exceptions or excuses. If you reproduce, copy, or “share” copyrighted work without permission or a legally-recognized defense, you are breaking the law, and that makes you a criminal.)

The nature of the Internet makes piracy simple to do and difficult to stop or track. Authors may never be able to completely prevent all theft of their work. However, there are some things authors can do to reduce the likelihood of continuing theft and piracy of copyrighted works.

1. Set up Internet-based alerts and perform regular piracy searches.  Programs like Google Alerts (while not infallible and often incomplete) can help authors track when their names or works are mentioned on the Internet. Authors also should perform Internet searches for their names and the titles of their works on at least a monthly basis (weekly is better, but not everyone has the time). Investigate search results you don’t recognize – but click with caution, because many copyright infringing sites are actually hosts for computer viruses. These searches are important whether you self-publish or have a traditional publisher. Authors shouldn’t rely on the publisher alone to track and find infringement.

2. Know what a DMCA Takedown notice is, and how to use it. Traditionally published authors should also know whether the publisher will send these notices for them. In many cases, a traditional publisher will want to be notified of infringement, but have its own legal counsel address the issue. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is a U.S. Federal law governing copyright protection. If you own copyrightable content, you can demand that websites remove infringing uses of your content by filing a DMCA Takedown Notice with the website host or administrator. While DMCA notices aren’t always effective (pirates are already violating the law, and your notice won’t generally change their minds) hosting companies are increasingly responsive to them. Next week’s post will examine the DMCA Takedown notice, and its requirements, in detail. 

3. Find a publishing lawyer to consult and work with if necessary. Not all piracy is worth litigation, but a good copyright lawyer can sometimes achieve results by sending a “cease and desist” letter on your behalf. It’s important to find a good attorney, who’s willing to work with you and offer advice, and help you determine when a lawyer is–and isn’t–useful. In proper cases, pursuing your rights with legal assistance can stop piracy and infringement. However, a good attorney will also tell you when it’s unlikely that a lawyer’s demands will actually resolve the problem. “Offshore” infringers generally flaunt the U.S. copyright laws with relative impunity, and don’t care about lawyers’ threatening letters.

4. Post copyright notices on your work and register copyrights when appropriate. Although copyright notices are not required to establish the copyright itself, they are a prerequisite to suing for damages in many places. Also, proper copyright notices and registration put people on notice that you’re claiming rights in your work. Notices won’t stop the determined thief, but they may cause otherwise “innocent” copiers to pause and reconsider.

 We’ll look at more methods for fighting piracy in the coming weeks, but I do have one more parting thought for today:

Don’t infringe copyright yourself, in your work or on your website.

Remember that other people’s photographs, artwork, and writing (including blog entries) are subject to copyright protection too. Don’t copy, re-blog, or use other people’s work without permission. Remember that you can link to content without needing to ask permission – so if you can’t or don’t want to ask permission, link. Also, don’t assume the original author will say no or charge a fee – though they do have the right to do so if they wish.

While refraining from copyright infringement won’t guarantee that nobody pirates your work, it’s not nice to complain about piracy while flying the skull and crossbones over your own career.

Have questions about this or other publishing legal or business topics? Please feel free to ask in the comments or email me through the website!