Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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March 13, 2015

Protecting Your Copyrights Online

Susan Spann

photo credit: Day 88 via photopin (license)

photo credit: Day 88 via photopin (license)

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.

Today, we take a look at how to do that. 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. 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. For example, my searches include “Susan Spann,” “Shinobi Mystery,” and the titles of each of my published works (as well as “Flask of the Drunken Master” which doesn’t release until July. 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. 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. Protect your rights…but know that you click through at your own risk.

  1. Set Up and Monitor Automated Alerts (e.g. “Google Alerts”). Programs like Google Alerts will monitor the Internet and automatically send the author updates when the search terms 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, 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 other places that Google Alerts did not notice. This is why I recommend using Google Alerts in conjunction with regular “live” Internet searches.

As with Internet searches, authors should set up Google Alerts for the author’s name and for each of the author’s published (or soon to be published) titles. Also: beware clicking through links on Google Alerts or other alert notifications. Be sure your computer is properly protected against viruses and hacking before you travel to the Mos Eisley Cantinas of the Internet.

  1. 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).

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

  1. 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. 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. Earlier this week, 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: http://www.susanspann.com/how-to-prepare-and-use-a-dmca-takedown-notice/

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.

  1. 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.

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 all authors can take to reduce the chance of infringement and theft.

If infringers refuse to respond to DMCA notices or requests for removal, authors should consult a copyright lawyer to determine their legal rights and 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 the author’s initial contact. It’s often 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?

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About Susan

SusanSpann_WITSSusan Spann writes the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month and a finalist for the Silver Falchion Award for Best First Novel. The second Shinobi Mystery, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, released on July 15, 2014, and her third novel, FLASK OF THE DRUNKEN MASTER, releases in July 2015. Susan is also a transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. When not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. You can find her online at her website, http://www.SusanSpann.com, and on Twitter (@SusanSpann).


24 comments on “Protecting Your Copyrights Online”

  1. Susan, thanks for the great advice, and the reminder - I just to Google my titles all the time (okay, so I was obsessive), but haven't lately. Going to do that now!

  2. A great reminder Susan. Thank you.

    As for answering the end question of policing your rights. I was head of a research group who collaboratively translated a relative's diary. We put it on our private web site for family only, with a copyright notation. One of our more obscure (read untrustworthy) members logged into the site only twice - found it and hijacked it. Later, I found it on his web site by doing a google search. Names of all of the family members who participated in transcribing the document were still intact sans copyright. I contacted the thief and told him to take it down from his site (in Canada) which, of course, he ignored. Since then someone in the Far East hijacked it, probably from the first person, and put it on a web site claiming copyright. I gave up, as there was no way to contact the second thief from the web site.

    The moral of the story is, unless you have unlimited money and time to spend defending it; don't put anything on the Internet you want to protect. On my new historical web site, I have tried to use tools that prohibit the copy/paste function, but there always seems to be a way around it. Therefore, I put up only abstracts (no citations) of my work online. It's not worth the headache.

    Sue Simonich, author of: "God's Painted Skies"
    administrator of: The World Wide Newburgh Project

    1. I'm sorry you had to go through that, Sue - so many of my clients have had similar experiences, down to the initial theft being done by someone they know. Thank you for sharing your story, and you important advice - hopefully we can save someone else the same heartache.

  3. Thanks for this informative piece, Susan. Just a shame there are folks in the world who do such bad things. I realize in the big scheme of things someone stealing our work may not seem so big to others in comparisons to death and destruction taking place, but it is our work. It's still stealing. And it's wrong. Yuck one more thing to add to my todo list. Bummer. LOL Thanks, Susan.

    1. It really is a shame, Marsha. And you're right - it's not on the scale of murder or war or, but at the same time, it's theft - and it's no less criminal just because the thieves don't have to see the victims' faces. Most artists make so little for their efforts - it's sad people don't respect the writer's right to be paid for his or her work the same way any other professional deserves payment for time put in.

      1. Hi Again Susan; I don't want to be the one who hogs the conversation, but, another writer friend of mine has been trying to combat theft of her work. She was doing a google search last year, and found a title that was similar to one that she had created. She looked it up and it appeared on Amazon. She started reading and it was almost word for word the same as her work. The beginning scene was the same and as she continued to read, she realized the entire plot was stolen.The only difference was, they had twisted it into some very unsavory imagery which she would never have used. Where she made a suggestive comment, the pirate used vulgar, coarse language. She was just heart sick. I haven't heard from her in a while, so I don't know what she was able to do to protect her rights. I wish we could get a lawyer to comment on some of this too.

  4. There's a wonderful Yahoogroup called AuthorsAgainstE-BookTheft (AuthorsAgainstE-BookTheft@yahoogroups.com) which is for authors, small publishers, etc., to share info on pirate sites, methods of takedown notices, etc. It's well worth joining.

  5. Susan thank you for a great article. Although I am sort of aware I kind of hope it doesn't happen to me and then I found one of my eBooks had been pirated. That smartened me up pretty fast. I am much more careful and your words gave me even more information of how I can protect my work. Just one more thing to do

    1. It's unfortunate that we have to fight this kind of thing at all, Susan - but at least if we have the information, we can stop at least some of it. I'm glad you're protecting your rights.

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