How To Deal With A Content Thief
Today I received a response from a content thief that made my blood boil. I just knew I had to take action. My first thought was to lawyer-up, but something he said in his email rankled me, and it changed the way I wanted to respond.
Over the years, many freelancers, marketers, and even other digital marketing agencies have stolen our work and claimed it as their own. It is always surprising to me that people in a creative industry would take from others, but experience has taught me that’s more common than you would dare to imagine.
Usually, when caught, content thieves apologize and claim they didn’t know that the person they hired stole someone’s work. But the guy whose email made my blood boil has clearly done this before and has no remorse. I’m getting ahead
of myself, though. The first question we need to answer is:
How do you catch a content thief?
We use a free tool called Copyscape (there are paid versions, but Copyscape isn’t sponsoring this post, so we aren’t going to get into the details).
Provide a URL from your website, and Copyscape will scour the internet for copies of your content. Copyscape may misinterpret your own social media pages and local listings to be duplicate content, but occasionally, it finds content thieves. When it does, it conveniently highlights your content on the offending site(s), like so:
Why is duplicate content bad?
Other than the fact that it’s reprehensible to steal someone else’s work, duplicate content is bad because it affects the way Google ranks your website. Your SEO can suffer if duplicate content exists on the web.
What do you do when you have caught a thief?
I use a fairly straightforward cease-and-desist template (I just change the dates and insert the link(s) to the offending page(s):
“It has come to my attention that your website uses unique marketing text and terms that were stolen directly from our website boxcrush.com. I have made a digital copy of your website and am retaining a copy for my lawyer, along with this email and the date it was sent.
I hereby ask you on this day, August 8, 2019, to cease and desist use of any and all text, graphics, and phrases that were taken from our website. You have until September 1, 2019, to respond to this email informing me that these items have been removed from your website. If you do not make such a response, and you fail to remove my property from your website, I will be forced to take legal action against you.”
I visit the offending website to find an email address or a contact form – if multiple people are listed on the site, I include all of the decision-makers so I can count on someone noticing my email.
How do people typically respond?
The responses vary, but usually, the content is immediately removed. Some people don’t respond, but they take down their entire website. I have received several apologies, some of which I’ll share here (but I’m omitting their names and company names to be kind). I swear I am not making these up.
“Dan, thanks. I have taken the site down until I can get to the bottom of this. My 15 year old son "wrote" the content for the site last year for me. Apparently he didn't put in the time he said he did. . . ”
“We paid a freelance writer a lot of money for the content on our website. I don’t even know what to say. We will get this removed as soon as I can get someone to do it.”
“I have removed the items I believe you are referring to. Please let me know if you believe there are still elements of [redacted].com that use your unique marketing text.”
“Sorry for any inconvenience or frustration. I'm not even in the web business anymore and have not been for a while. Sorry I did not respond to your first email. I must have missed it. All of the pages in question have been removed and will no longer appear on the web. Again please accept this apology and best wishes with your business and the future. If something was missed please respond back and let me know.”
What do you do if they challenge you?
I have been sending simple Cease-and-Desist emails for 17 years, and I have never received a response that was anything other than apologetic, confused, or concerned. Until today. This is the response that inspired me to write this post:
“ Hey Dan,
Since neither of us are lawyers, perhaps you can start with what part of our client case study you believe was taken from your website?
I don't see anything that could be construed as similar, and I'm not familiar with your organization.
In any case, as I'm sure you know on March 4th your United States Supreme Court ruled that you must have your federal copyright registration in hand before pursuing such claims.
I've CC'd our counsel on this email, if you can send your registration information to both of us so we can review it, that would be greatly appreciated.
(redacted company name) ”
Ok, so this is the part that got to me: “Since neither of us are lawyers…” Why did this get to me? Because he was absolutely right – I am NOT a lawyer, and if he were to cooperate, I wouldn’t have to talk to one. He cites a Supreme Court ruling, even though he has admitted to not being a lawyer. He claims no familiarity with BoxCrush, yet he watches copyright law in my country very closely, he asks for legal documentation to make it seem too difficult to pursue, and he instantly has his legal counsel at the ready. He has done this before and is prepared to fight.
He has also chosen his targets carefully. All of the companies he has stolen from (more on that below) are outside of Canada, the country in which he does business.
As this person so helpfully pointed out, I am not a lawyer – so I chose to resolve this matter as any digital marketer would.
How to handle a content thief like a digital marketer
1. Use Copyscape to review the offender’s content
If someone is stealing from BoxCrush, they are probably stealing from others, too. By using Copyscape on each page of the offender’s website, I was able to discover several other agencies whose content had been stolen.
2. Let the other website owners know
I contacted the other agencies whose content appeared on the offender’s website. (And I made PDFs of the highlighted duplicate content, to document the misappropriation).
(optional additional escalation levels)
3. Let the offender’s clients know
Does the offender have a portfolio that lists its clients? Testimonials? Reviews in offline sources? The content that compelled its customers to work with this agency in the first place was not its own. I believe its clients deserve to know – show them the links to the duplicate content. Maybe they’ll find out who actually wrote that content and choose to partner with them.
4. Let the offender’s partners know
The offending agency has partners listed in its footer and elsewhere throughout their site – its Google Partner badge, awards, and other business relationships. I think those partners need to know about the stolen content, so they can decide if their logos should continue to be used on such a website.
5. Let everyone know
In the end, I only needed to get to Step 2. Once other digital content owners started sending cease-and-desist letters, the offender saw the light and decided to remove the content. I am not entirely sure if it was due to the other agencies contacting him or if the needle on his moral compass came unstuck.
I don’t know how many others have found themselves in this situation, but I am all about turning a negative experience into a positive outcome. Perhaps by sharing this story, I can empower other non-lawyers to deal with online content thieves that have no remorse.