With the onset of the search engines, increasing the importance of content online has started a new phenomenon of businesses taking content from others and using it as their own to help improve their search rankings and to avoid the onerous work of creating their content. This is a topic that has become near and dear to my heart over the last few years, as our website content has been plagiarized by several competitors, including consulting and accounting firms, who are supposed to be professional organizations.
If this happened once, you might write this off to one bad apple, but this has happened seven times in the last five years, as recently as last month ago by an immigration agency offering consulting services. This article is to serve as a cautionary tale to those who are considering “stealing” content from others' websites as well as to help businesses who have invested time and money in content marketing protect themselves.
How to Uncover Your Content Has Been Plagiarized
I was unaware of how prevalent this practice was until a few years ago until a friend of mine who owns a web development company asked me if I had ever checked to see if any our content had been plagiarized by others. I have adult children who are recently out of University, so I was aware that there were tools in both High School and Post-Secondary schools that teachers and professors could use to check school work. I also teach at a College, so I have used them. I never considered that business people would take the content and put it on their website as their own, much less have the nerve to add copyright at the bottom.
The friend suggested that I run my website through a tool called Copyscape. I was not prepared for what I uncovered. There was a woman who was selling business consulting and coaching services in the next Region over who had copied 10-12 pages of our website and was using it to sell services. She was even using information that was about myself and my business partner, which was unfathomable, as she did not have the background and experience that she was saying she had. Not only had she used this content on her website, but she was using this across the web on directory and event sites.
I contacted a friend of mine who specializes in copyright and patent law and is a litigator to ask her what I should do. This was when she told me about Wayback Machine. She suggested that if I did the work to find out when my pages versus her pages were indexed, this could save me money in her legal fees. This is the tool that many lawyers use. I plugged in every page she had plagiarized (verbatim), and it showed that content that was on my site on those pages and how it read. The text she copied verbatim was on my website a year prior. Though I had updated it, so read a little different – it showed the date when it was the same, and the date was two years prior. Her website was less than a year old.
What to Do Once You Determine Your Content Has Been Plagiarized
Before you contact a lawyer to take legal action, you should attempt the following as most businesses once they are caught will comply versus the thought of legal action being pursued.
Send an email to them asking them to “Cease and Desist” using your content. Let them know if they do not; your next step will be contacting a lawyer. In our case, the lawyer I used is also a friend, so I always copy her on the note I send them, so they know I am serious about pursuing the next step if necessary.
Use the tools above to prove your allegations and attach a copy showing the plagiarized text. In the letter, let them know you will be contacting their Internet Service Provider (ISP) as well as the search engines to inform them. What most do not know is when they agree to the terms of their ISP, there is usually verbiage surrounding not engaging in activities such as using copyrighted material. The search engines and especially Google take copyright infringement seriously, and there is a good chance they could be blacklisted. In 4 out of the 5 cases, the business has taken down the content within hours of receiving the note or being told; the next step is contacting a Google and then a lawyer.
Give them 48 to 72 hours to comply, and if they do not, at that point, contact Google and fill in their form to Report Alleged Copyright Infringement. I find they work fairly quickly as I reported a firm after they wrote me back a snotty letter telling me to try to make them. Google de-ranked their site, and within a couple of weeks, the pages were rewritten.
If this does not work, contact a legal professional. The lawyer will provide another cease and desist letter that will be registered to the business owners and will give them a time frame before legal action will be taken. It is funny how a letter from a law firm seems to be taken more seriously. In the case of the individual who ignored our note, the lawyer collected the majority of my legal fees from them. This ended up costing this individual close to $2000.00, and we only ended up paying for only one hour of her time. A minimal fee to pay for the damage that leaving this content on the web could have cost us if Google had ranked us lower. This individual copied almost our entire website and was selling herself under our credentials. If this had gone to court, this could have been very costly for her as she not only stole the content but were using our experience and credentials, which she did not possess.
Why Pursue Action
In the majority of the cases that we have found where our content was plagiarized, the material was taken from pages, including metadata for SEO on pages that ranked on the 1st page of Google. As a professional services organization, approximately 50% of our revenue comes through contact through the Internet. We spend thousands a year optimizing our content and on tools to help us so that we do rank on the search engines. When individuals take your content and copyright it as their own, they are breaking the law. In Canada, the punishment can be an indictment and fines up to $1M, as stated in this article on About Money under Small Business Canada on Copyright Laws. Of course, this is not the norm, but the court systems do take this seriously, and there are fines imposed if the case goes to court.
Writing unique content takes time and, in some cases, costs money, as many businesses are paying outside firms to develop content. This content is not only your intellectual property, but usually, on the web, it is being used to help you rank on search engines. You do not want to find your website blacklisted or ranked lower for duplicate because someone else decided to take your content instead of writing their own. In our case, they were not only taking the content but were taking information that was about our business and us and saying it applied to them and their business.
What Is Not a Defense
The second company that used our content said they paid a firm overseas to write the content, so they were not liable and was their defence. They first refused to take the content down until I told them our lawyer would now be in contact. Anything that is on your website or in printed materials with your name, logo and copyright is yours and therefore, just because you paid a firm that is not ethical to write your content is not a defence. You need to make sure you are using a reputable firm to write your content. If they do plagiarize, you have a case against them, but the company whose material was copied has a claim against you and your business.
When we work with companies, we often get asked if they can use content that is relevant to their business from other websites. The answer is no. You can point to an article and give credit, but if you use the actual content on your site, you must have the permission of the owner. The same applies to pictures on the web. You cannot just find a photo on the Internet and use it on your website. The images, in many cases, are the intellectual property of the business itself or could be stock photos that they licensed and purchased. Before you decide to use that picture that you find from Googling, stop and figure out if the image has copyright protection. My husband's cousin is a photographer and sells her pictures and someone on Facebook used one of her photos for the cover picture of the group. When she contacted them to ask them to take it down, he laughed at her and called her names and users within the group as a whole did not see the issue. Several friends including myself outlined ways above she could fight this, she did and Facebook group took it down.
Be sure before you use any content, whether it be text, video, or images on your website, that you have the right to do so. Otherwise, you could end up being contacted by the business or individual of the content you used and be part of a Copyright Infringement lawsuit. It is not worth taking the chance and putting yourself or your business at risk in hopes of not being found out by a website owner.