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John T. Unger

What To Do When People Steal Your Blog Content

John T. Unger September 25, 2006

In a recent comment, Sylvia Forester asked

What can we do to stop Bitacle from stealing our posts and making money off of them?

Rather than responding in the comments, it seemed like a good topic for a full blog post. Copyright and IP law are much too large a topic to cover extensively here, but I can provide a few thoughts on where to start.

I haven't looked at Bitacle previously, but with a quick scan of a couple pages it appears to me that they do include a link back to the original content when they repost material. This may in fact be a benefit to your blog, as people who use Bitacle for search may find you for the first time and become regular readers… There are a number of sites that I allow to republish content from the TypePad Hacks blog in order to reach a wider audience. They send a fair bit of traffic and I don't begrudge them a few advertising dollars in exchange. On the other hand, it is possible that your reputation could be harmed by spam blogs harvesting your posts and republishing them on sites that contain offensive or dangerous material.

An important question to ask yourself before taking action is why you object to your content being reused: is it because someone else may be making money from your content or because you don't want your personal brand to be diluted by appearing in multiple places online? This will help you frame the tone of your response. You should also ask yourself whether your reputation or brand is helped or harmed by broader distribution… If the republishing site contains proper attribution and/or a link back to your site, they may be doing you more good than harm even if they make a buck or two in the process. Remember, Google makes advertising dollars when they list you in their search engine and you wouldn't want them to stop listing you!

If you prefer to keep your content exclusive to your own site, here are a few options you can exercise.

Step One: Email the site that is republishing your content and politely ask them to remove your content from their site. I find that people respond much better to a request than to a threat, so it is important to start out with an email, phone call or letter that is respectful but firm in tone. This is not a step you want to exercise when you are angry or tired.

As more and more companies and individuals are republishing blog content from RSS feeds, you might want to keep a copy of a stock email that you can send out whenever needed. This will save you a fair amount of time.

Once you have taken this step, give them at least a week or two to comply… In most cases, the response will not be instant. Whoever is using your content is going to have to take the time to look through their feeds, archives etc. and even when happy to comply, it probably won't be at the top of their priority list. Remember that your blog is probably one of hundreds or thousands being excerpted or republished. In your initial contact, you might want to suggest a deadline and request that they contact you with a followup email when they have acted upon your request.

Step Two: If the first contact does not get results, send a cease and desist letter threatening legal action if the recipient continues to ignore your request. Although such letters are usually draughted by a lawyer, you can find many examples online that could be tailored to your situation. In many cases, the letter itself will get results without having to go to trial, but if it doesn't you'll have to decide whether or not a trial is worth it to you. In most cases, it will be expensive to take legal action even if you win.

If your content has been formally registered with the US Copyright Office, you will be entitled to sue for legal fees. Even if you have not formally registered copyright, your content is still protected under copyright law. In fact, you don't even have to label the work as copyrighted in order to seek protection. The main benefit of formally registering copyright is the ability to sue for legal fees, but it is very important to note that even if you win a judgement against someone, that does not guarantee that they will actually pay you. You must register your content three months prior to bringing suit if you wish to sue for legal fees.

The only exception to automatic protection under copyright law is if you have chosen to license parts of the content through a Creative Commons license, in which case that license will grant specific rights based on your choices.

Step Three: This article on the Learning Moveable Type blog provides a good overview of how to use the  DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act) to protect your content by filing a complaint through Google. You can file a DMCA complaint through the Adsense team if the site uses Adsense, or file a general DMCA complaint if not. You might want to include a reference to filing a DMCA complaint through Google in your cease and desist letter.

Step Four: If all the above fails and you still feel strongly that heads must roll, you'll have to actually bring suit against the offending party in court. At this point, you'll want to hire a lawyer to handle the proceedings. Personally, I feel that in most cases an actual law suit is both overkill and a game of diminishing returns… but of course, many feel differently.

Step Five: Most sites which republish content draw from RSS feeds rather than hand-harvesting content from individual posts… The best way to protect against your content migrating to other sites is to provide a partial RSS feed or no RSS feed at all. BUT— to my thinking, this is really cutting off your nose to spite your face. Sure, it prevents most content theft, but it also limits your readership and exposure.

There's been a great deal of debate as to whether to offer full or partial RSS feeds of sites in order to curtail article harvesting. The basic gist of the discussion is that full feeds are good for readers but bad for security, while partial feeds keep content more secure but can be frustrating for readers. It's my feeling that blogs should be more about the reader than the author if they wish to succeed.

Some people like partial feeds because they can scan a lot of headlines quickly. Myself, I favor full feeds. If everyone was as good as Brian Clark at writing headlines and starting their post with engaing copy, I might be more into partial feeds. But in most cases, I prefer to see the whole post so I can give the author the benefit of the doubt when a potentially interesting post starts off a bit slow.

When I have to click through to an actual website or blog in my browser, I get annoyed and eventually stop reading the blog altogether. The only time I want to click through is to leave a comment, and I would be way happier if I could comment on a post from within my RSS reader. The whole point of RSS for me is to be able to collect the info I want to read in one place and manage it by saving the articles I found valuable or marking them as something I wish to link to or comment on, etc. Dropping or limiting the RSS feed makes the entire experience of a blog less usefull and less welcoming to me.

When you punish your readers in order to discourage content pirates, you are effectively treating your readers as though they too may be bad people. Partial feeds discourage your reader from getting your full message, from linking to your content appropriately and from joining the discussion in the comments… take a look at this post by Seth Godin about a site that has made doing business with them almost impossible based on a few bad experiences they had with former customers.

Update: Within an hour of posting this entry, I noticed that the "Technorati links" item in my FeedFlare showed a link back to this post. On clicking it, I found that two sites had automatically linked to it by importing the RSS feed. Neither republishes the entire article and both link back to me, so I'm fine with it (despite the fact that the main motivation of both appears to be generating advertising revenue without actually publishing any original content). I also sent this post to three other sites myself (Performancing, Gather and NowPublic) in the hopes that I might gain a new reader or two.

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Comments

Randy Charles Morin says:

Another thing you can do is report them to me [randy@kbcafe.com]. I'll report them to their ISP, hosting, ad service, etc, post a comment on the blog, Destroy All Malware and usually their site is gone and their business destroyed within a week.

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Today's guest blogger is John T. Unger of TypepadHacks.org, a great resource for customizing Typepad blogs. John's post is a great review of what to do about content theft, all the way from thanking them for the links, to reporting [Read More]

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