Updated: Feb 23
With the onset of search engines, the increasing importance of content online has started a new phenomenon. This phenomenon is other businesses taking content from competitors and using it as their own to help improve their search rankings. It also helps them avoid the onerous work of creating their content. Plagiarizing and copyright infringement 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 as one bad apple, but this has happened eight times in the last six years, as recently as last year by an immigration agency offering consulting services and then again a few months ago by a consulting firm whose principal was a CPA. 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 this practice's prevalence until a few years ago when a friend of mine who owns a web development company asked me if I had ever checked to see if others had plagiarized our content. 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 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 a 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. A woman selling business consulting and coaching services in the next Region over had copied 10-12 pages of our website and was using it to sell services. Not only had she used this content on her website, but she was using this across the web on directory and event sites. She was even using information about myself and my business partner, which was unfathomable, as she did not have the background and experience she was saying she had.
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 the content on my site and how it read. The text she copied verbatim was on my website a year prior. Though I had updated it, it read a little differently – 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: most businesses will comply with the thought of legal action being pursued once they are caught.
Send an email to them asking them to "Cease and Desist" using your content. Tell them if they do not comply, your next step will be to contact a lawyer. In our case, the lawyer I used was also a friend, so I always copied her on the note I would send them so they knew I was 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) and the search engines to inform them. Most do not know that when they agree to the terms of their ISP, there is usually verbiage surrounding not engaging in activities such as using copyrighted material. Search engines, especially Google, take copyright infringement seriously, and there is a good chance they could be blacklisted. In 5 of the 6 cases, the business took down the content within hours of receiving the note or being told.
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 pretty quickly as I reported a firm after they wrote me 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 give them a time frame before legal action is 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 most of my legal fees from them. This ended up costing this individual close to $2000.00, and we only paid for one hour of her time. A minimal price 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 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 was using our experience and credentials, which she did not possess.
Why Pursue Action
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 rank on the search engines. In most cases, we 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. Individuals who take your content and copyright it as their own 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 take this seriously, and fines are 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 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 that was their defence. They first refused to take the content down until I told them our lawyer would now be in contact. Anything on your website or in printed materials with your name, logo and copyright is yours; 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 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 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 owner's permission. 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 use that picture you find from Googling, stop and figure out if the image has copyright protection. My husband's cousin is a photographer and sells her photographs; 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 the Facebook group took it down.
Before you use any content, whether it be text, video, or images, on your website, you have the right to do so. Otherwise, you could be 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.