Protecting Your Copyrights 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 too. 

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

While no single post can cover all of the ways to protect your work online, here are some tips on things all authors can do to protect and enforce their copyrights: 

1.  Perform Regular Copyright / Infringement Searches. 

Search the Internet regularly (at least once a month) for: (a) your name, (b) your published titles, and (c) any other words, phrases, or marks which might reveal infringement or illegal copying of your work. Using quotation marks around the search terms returns only those results which contain the exact phrase within the quotes. 

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. Many websites that contain infringing content also contain trojan horses and other dangerous computer viruses. Protect your rights…but know that you click through at your own risk. As an alternative, arrange for a webmaster or other “trained professional” to follow up on potentially infringing sites. Be sure your computer is properly protected against viruses and hacking before you travel to the Mos Eisley Cantinas of the Internet. Also: don’t download files or click on links if you don’t know and trust the source.

2.  Set Up and Monitor Automated Alerts (e.g. “Google Alerts”).

Programs like Google Alerts will automatically send the author updates when specified search terms appear online. Google alerts is available free of charge in many cases; other  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, Google Alerts doesn’t actually notice updates to the “entire” Internet, so the results are not 100% reliable–everything which shows up is actually there, but your work may also appear in places that Google Alerts did not report. (This is why I recommend Google Alerts in conjunction with regular “live” Internet searches.) 

3. 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 (if you’re self published, remember: the publisher is you.) If your press doesn’t register copyrights (some small presses don’t) make sure you register your copyright within 90 days of initial publication.

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). 

A proper copyright notice looks like this: © [year] [author name]. All rights reserved. 

4. Understand How to Prepare and Use a DMCA Notice. The DMCA (which stands for Digital Milennium Copyright Act) is a U.S. law designed to protect authors’ rights and facilitate access to information. A few months ago, I posted a blog explaining how to prepare and use a DMCA Notice, along with a sample notice I use with my copyright clients. You can find that tutorial 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. 

5. Track Your Licenses and Permissions. Prepare and maintain a file (physical or electronic) for each of your works, which includes documentation on: (a) which rights you have 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, you have a quick-reference guide to the work’s current status. 

While these steps can’t prevent infringement altogether, and no one can control the Internet (in all its gruesome glory), they do offer concrete steps to reduce the chance of infringement and theft. 

If infringers refuse to respond to DMCA notices or requests for removal, consult a copyright lawyer to determine whether legal action is worthwhile. In some 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 an initial contact. It’s worth a call to an experienced lawyer if an infringer ignores or disregards your rights.

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


One thought on “Protecting Your Copyrights Online

  • August 20, 2015 at 4:11 pm

    Susan, the tip about keeping track of rights is a great idea–thank you!

    I’ve been thinking that I need to do the same thing for images (by others) I’ve used. Some sites sell images that are limited to a certain number of impressions – the thought of tracking it is mind numbing.

    One question: is it feasible to register two copyrights for a work? The first when the draft manuscript is complete (before emailing it to critique partners, beta readers, reviewers, editors etc etc), and a second when the manuscript is finally edited, proofread and ready to publish?


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