Protecting Your Legal Rights Online

In Star Wars, Obi-Wan Kenobi refers to Mos Eisley spaceport as a “wretched hive of scum and villainy” and adds, “we must be careful.”

Obi-Wan’s wisdom applies to the Internet also.

Regardless of your publishing path, if you write for publication, you should take steps to protect your copyrighted work against Internet-based infringement.

No single post can cover all of the ways to protect your work online–and it’s admittedly impossible to completely stop all Internet-based piracy of an author’s work–but here are some tips on things all authors can do to protect and enforce their copyrights:

Perform Regular Copyright / Infringement Searches.

Every author should search the Internet regularly (at least once a month) for: (a) the author’s name, (b) the author’s published titles, and (c) any other words, phrases, or marks which might reveal infringement or illegal copying of the author’s work. 

Internet searches are important even if you also use Google Alerts or another monitoring service. While effective, automated alerts don’t catch all infringement, and can’t be relied upon to screen for all uses of an author’s work on the Internet.

Warning: Not all sites that come up on these searches will be safe to click on. Protect your computer with anti-script and antivirus software and other protective measures before clicking through to unknown or untrusted websites. Many websites that contain infringing content also contain trojan horses and other dangerous computer viruses. In fact, in many cases, that infringing “book download” is often just a virus–not your book at all. 

Set Up and Monitor Automated Alerts (like Google Alerts).

Programs like Google Alerts will monitor the Internet and automatically send the author updates when the search terms listed in the alerts appear online. Google alerts is available free of charge in many circumstances; some programs and monitoring systems offer this service for a fee, but in most cases authors can get the same services free of charge through a combination of Google Alerts and regular Internet searches for the author’s name and title(s). Unfortunately, automated systems are not 100% reliable, which is why I recommend using Google Alerts in conjunction with regular “live” Internet searches.

Register Copyrights and Use Copyright Notices When Appropriate.

Make sure that your publisher registers your copyrights with the U.S. Copyright Office in a timely manner (and if you’re self published, remember: the publisher is you.) Use copyright notices on all published works, including articles, presentation handouts and lecture notes, and blogs (unless the blog already has a copyright notice on it).

Learn How to Prepare and Use a DMCA Takedown Notice.

In many cases, publishers will send the DMCA notice on behalf of traditionally published authors, if the author notifies the publisher of the infringement. However, it will be easier for the publisher to send the notice if the author knows what information to provide.

The DMCA (which stands for Digital Milennium Copyright Act) is a U.S. law designed to protect authors’ rights and facilitate access to information. The law contains a provision requiring Internet Service Providers and website administrators within the U.S. to investigate and address claims of copyright infringement promptly, as long as the notice of infringement complies with the requirements contained in the DMCA.


The bad news is that the DMCA does only apply within the United States – and most pirate websites are located offshore, in places that won’t comply.

If you want to learn more about using a DMCA takedown notice, you can find instructions and explanations here. 

Traditionally published authors should check with their publishers before preparing and sending DMCA notices, because in many cases the publisher prefers to handle those notices in-house. Self-published authors need to learn the procedure and how to use a DMCA notice, in order to protect their legal rights.

Track Your Licenses and Permissions.

Authors should have a file (either physical or electronic) for every copyrighted or published work, which states: (a) which rights in the work the author has licensed, sold, or granted, (b) to whom, and (c) when the contract or grant of rights expires. This way, if any question arises about whether uses are legal or not, the author has a quick-reference guide to the work’s current copyright status. At the start of an author’s career, it’s easy to track these rights, but the more works you produce, and the more years pass since their creation, the harder it will be to remember without a written record.

Know When to Fight (and When Not to – and how to effect change).

Unfortunately, many pirate websites that feature infringing content exist outside the United States, where we can’t control them. Even successful efforts to shut them down are temporary, because new ones spring up almost overnight. 

If infringers refuse to respond to legally proper notices or requests for removal, authors should consult a copyright lawyer to determine their legal rights and whether legal action is worthwhile. In many unfortunate cases, infringers host their sites “offshore” in countries where copyright protection is nonexistent or favorable to thieves. These sites are difficult to shut down and often impossible to regulate, so pursuit of their owners may be a waste of time. However, other infringers may respond to attorneys (or court orders) even if they ignore the author’s initial contact. It’s often worth a call to an experienced lawyer if an infringer ignores or disregards your rights.

As far as the “non-controllable” infringers, the best way to fight them is not to patronize them. Ever. And to encourage others not to, either. While piracy will exist as long as people are willing to steal copyrighted works, authors themselves should not be part of the problem.

Finally, to take away the sting, here’s today’s seahorse: Moya.

15L14 Moya on polyps

Have you ever had to police your legal rights on the Internet? How did the experience go for you?