PIRATES! Or, How to Protect Your Intellectual Property on the High Seas of the Internet

© 2014 by By Lisa Morton

Your morning starts like any other: You wake up, shower, get your coffee, sit down at the computer, take a look at your e-mail, then do a little web surfing. Your favorite message board for writers is talking about someone who just had a story stolen by an unscrupulous individual who tried to pass the story off with their name on it. Uh-oh, you think to yourself, I think I submitted something to that guy once. You Google your story title, and then stare in disbelief when you find it copied to a public file-sharing site and available for free download--with your name replaced by the thief's, to boot.

What do you do?

First, let's talk a little about how work can be pirated online (and please note---this article is not about what to do if your manuscript is stolen and turned into a bestseller; there are lawyers for that. This is about you, the author, protecting yourself from the kinds of piracy happening online every day now). Here are the most common situations:

  1. Your work is copied and posted online. Someone has either re-typed your work or has gotten an electronic file and has posted the work online with no changes. This is the only method of piracy that could be an innocent mistake, since it might be the result of an over-zealous fan who wants to share your work with the world. The story might appear on someone's blog or website.
  2. Your work is copied and posted online under someone else's name. In this case, the story has been stolen and is now presented to the world as the thief's work. The story may be presented at a public file-sharing site where authors offer fiction for free. Examples of such sites include Storymania.com, Booksie.com, and Scribd.com.
  3. Your work is copied, the thief replaces your name, and the story is offered for payment. The thief might actually be submitting your work (under his or her own name, of course) to paying markets, or they may be charging for a download of the work through a site like Amazon, Lulu, or Smashwords.
  4. Your work is copied and presented as a bit torrent file. The thief is taking a significant work by you---probably an entire book or even multiple titles---and making it available for free to anyone who engages in downloading bit torrent files. This method rarely applies to smaller works like short stories.

Now, before we look at each of these situations in greater detail, let's address something that applies to every single instance of copyright infringement: It is up to YOU, the original author, to do something, and you MUST do something. If you, the copyright holder, know about an infringement and do nothing, you leave yourself open to the infringer later using that as an argument against you and getting away with the infringement. When you write an original work, you automatically own the copyright on that work (although it's not a bad idea to include a line like "copyright (year) (your name)" at the front of every manuscript---I put it right above the word count); you don't need to officially register the work for copyright, and that would hardly be practical with every short story or article, anyway. However, the difference between filing or registering a copyright and using a Common Law copyright can be substantial and far too detailed to go into here. Suffice to say that it can be the difference between obtaining statutory damages in a lawsuit and having to prove damages. Getting statutory damages is far easier and is usually far less expensive in terms of the legal fees (and this is why copyrights are registered on more substantial works).

Remember, the work is YOUR property, and no one will ever be as interested in protecting your property as YOU. I've seen writers shrug off blatant plagiarism ("oh well, it's only one case, and no one will ever read it on that website, and it's too much trouble to try to deal with"), and I'm always perplexed by this laissez faire attitude. This is your property, your career, and your legacy; you wouldn't let people walk away with pieces of your house, right? And besides, if someone is pirating your story, you can bet they're doing it with others, too; you owe it to your fellow writers, if not yourself, to stand up to these criminals.

The most basic thing I would recommend for every writer is to create a Google alert for your name. Even if you have a very common name (like mine) and fear you'll be overwhelmed with alerts that have nothing to do with you, you need to do this; this will let you know every instance of any of your work posted online that still bears your name, and it will also alert you to any discussions about you (for example: "Hey, did that new story Dave Horrormaster posted today remind anyone of a story by Ann Penner?"). Besides, it's also free and easy, and can lead to fun results as well. First I'd recommend creating a Google account, if you don't already have one. Just head here:

https://www.google.com/accounts/NewAccount?continue=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com%2F&hl=en

...and follow the directions. Having a Google account will let you do other cool things, too, like create your own library from Google's public domain books, use Google documents (for file storing), and make a Gmail account for online e-mail.

Here's how to make your Google alert:

  1. Go to http://www.google.com/alerts?hl=en
  2. Type in your search terms, and be sure to enclose them in quotation marks. My name, for instance, is entered there as "Lisa Morton"; this tells Google to search only for the full name, because without the quote marks the search results will return every page that has both "Lisa" and "Morton" on it, and I'd be drowning in useless nonsense.
  3. Set "Type" to "Everything"
  4. Set "How Often" to "As-it-happens"
  5. Set "Volume" to "All Results"
  6. Don't forget to enter your e-mail address

That's it! You've now created a Google alert for your name, and every time Google's little search robots find another example of your name listed for any reason on any web page, you'll get a cool little e-mail notice with a link to the newly-found page.

But your name isn't the only use for a Google alert - you can also list a title or a character. I've created Google alerts for all of my books and for certain key short stories; not only will I know instantly if any of these works are plagiarized and reposted somewhere on the web under the original title, but I also get notified of new online reviews or discussions. You can create up to 1,000 Google alerts, so it'll be a while before you use 'em up. And with your Google account you can log in at any time to edit or delete your alerts.

One more word about Google: If you're trying to search for a work that you suspect might have been stolen and the title changed, try searching for a very specific line of text from the piece. Choose a line that's fairly distinctive, something with either odd names, unusual words, or a strange happening; it doesn't matter how long it is, if it's got enough distinctive elements. Remember to enclose the line in quotation marks before you run the Google search. If the work has been pirated, this search method should turn it up, even if the author name and/or title has been changed. I've never gone so far as resorting to making Google alerts from lines of text, but I suppose there's no reason you couldn't (just remember those quotation marks).

Now, let's go back and look at our four situations outlined above, and take them one-by-one.

In the first scenario, your work has been posted online somewhere, with no changes made---you are still identified as the author. In all likelihood, this was an innocent act on the part of the poster---your work had an impact on them, and they just wanted to share that with the world---but they haven't stopped to think that by posting that work, they are potentially depriving you of sales (since no one has to buy anything to read the story). In this situation, your best approach is to contact the fan; look for a link on the blog or website, or post a comment. Politely thank them for their interest in your work, but remind them that they are committing copyright infringement by posting the work, and request that they remove it immediately. In the unlikely event that they either refuse your request or just ignore it, you'll need to go after whoever hosts the site. If it's a blog on a blogging service like livejournal or wordpress, that'll be easy: Go to the site's main page and look for a "Contact" link; from that link, you'll probably even see a specific link or button for "Abuse". Most major websites will respond very quickly to charges of copyright infringement and will either remove the offensive material or even close the culprit's account within hours. Likewise, if the material has been posted on a file-sharing site, a free website like freewebs.com, a discussion forum, or some other public group site, always look for the "Contact" link.

Things get more difficult if the material has been posted to an individual's own domain (www.lisamorton.com, for example). If the individual refuses to acknowledge your request to remove the copyrighted material, you'll need to find out who is hosting that domain. First, go to http://www.whois.net/, and type the domain name into the "Whois Lookup" box. This will take you to a page where you'll be able to see information on the domain---what you're really looking for here is the "nameserver" (ignore "Registrar", "Whois Server", and "Referral URL"---these may not have anything to do with the company hosting the site). For example: The "nameservers" on www.lisamorton.com are listed as "NS1.LUNARPAGES.COM" and "NS2.LUNARPAGES.COM". A quick trip to lunarpages.com reveals that they are a major hosting service, and there are "Contact" links galore all over their site. Again, an e-mail to the domain host notifying them of an act of copyright infringement on one of their user's websites is likely to result in a rapid removal of the copyrighted material. Occasionally, the results from a Whois search may be confusing, in which case I recommend using www.whoishostingthis.com.

On to the second situation now: Your story has plainly been stolen by a deceptive individual whose goal is to present your work as his or hers. Here's something I've noticed about plagiarists in this category: They're inclined to be lazy. Unlike the avid fan who will willingly re-type a story they've read in a book, the knowing plagiarist is probably only going to rip off a story he already has easy access to, meaning he owns an electronic copy of it. A crucial question, then, becomes: How did the plagiarist obtain that electronic file?

There are a lot of ways, and you should stop and think before you do any of the following:

  • Place a file on your own website as a writing sample or "freebie"
  • Post a file to any other website, whether it's a blog, fiction sharing community, discussion board, or whatever
  • Send an electronic submission to a market that you're not familiar with
  • Respond to an e-mail invitation to submit fiction from someone you're not familiar with
  • Submit a story to a charity anthology (unless the anthology is from a longstanding, recognized publisher or editor)

In general, be wary of any publisher who doesn't offer advances, who has no reputation (don't be afraid to Google new publishing names), who either doesn't offer a contract or who offers a poorly drafted contract, or who has a badly designed website hosted on a free service.

Permit me to offer up one nightmare scenario that was reported by several unwary authors: The authors, anxious to make that first sale, found "Publisher X" listed at ralan.com, a website that lists open markets (ralan, by the way, acted promptly to remove all listings from "Publisher X" when made aware of this scam). They sent a manuscript to X, and were thrilled to receive acceptances a short time later. X threw together a barely-adequate layout on the books, which then appeared at Amazon with a higher-than-usual price. X now made a gracious offer to his new authors: If they wanted significant discounts on their new books, they could purchase in bulk from X. The authors immediately sent hundreds of dollars to X…who of course never sent the books (in classic conman fashion, X responded to e-mails by first invoking pity---"my mother is very sick"---and then playing the bully, before finally ceasing to respond altogether). But it doesn't end there: Some time later, the authors discovered that X had continued to list their books on Amazon…but with X's own name now listed as author.

A few quick Google searches on Publisher X (whose reputation even at the time these authors were submitting was shaky) and some extra caution could have saved both of these writers a tremendous amount of time, stress, and money. However, even the smartest of writers can fall for a scam, perhaps as a result of a flattering e-mail ("I love your work and I'd love to have a story from you!") or appealing to charitable instincts ("I'm putting together a book to benefit sick puppies, and I know you love puppies as much as I do"). If you've given an electronic file to someone who you've since become suspicious of, Google the title or a specific line (don't forget those quotation marks) IMMEDIATELY; if nothing comes back, create a Google alert with at least the title, possibly a line of text.

However, if you do get a hit and find that your file has been plagiarized, here are the steps you should take:

  1. Go over Google carefully to make sure it hasn't been posted at more than one site (it probably has---plagiarists love to hide behind multiple sites and pseudonyms).
  2. For each place where your stolen work is now appearing, go to the website and first examine the file to make sure it's your story.
  3. Now, this is important: You'll want some form of proof of the copyright infringement, so the plagiarist cannot later claim that said infringement never occurred. If the site offers the file as a download (fiction-sharing sites, for example, will often offer the ability to download a file as a PDF), grab the file and store it on your own machine. You might also consider taking screen captures of the website and your file---check your computer's model and software to find out how to use screen capture (with most current Windows machines, for example, there's a "Print Screen" key right on your keyboard that will save a screen capture to your machine).
  4. Find the site's contact information, and (if possible) a link for reporting abuse. Report the offensive file immediately. Include all of your copyright information---when the work was originally published and where, and possibly a link to the original book on Amazon or a similar book pricing site. Basically, you just want to establish clearly that you are the copyright holder here. Normally the site will act quickly to remove the copyrighted file; if you press a little more, you can often get them to cancel the plagiarist's account as well. However…be prepared for more of a fight if the site is outside of North America; some international sites simply don't take copyright infringement as seriously. In these situations a letter from an attorney may (or may not) provoke some action.
  5. Contact the plagiarist. If you originally gave him or her the electronic file for some other purpose, then you should still have their contact information; otherwise, look for it on the website hosting the stolen file, or try Googling it. Let the individual know that you are aware of the theft, have acted to have it removed, and will be vigilant for future attempts to post the story again. Consider attaching the proof you obtained, be it a copy of a PDF file or a screen capture. You need to drive the point home that you will NOT tolerate further instances of theft of your intellectual property.
  6. Preferably you should report the theft to the writing community at large, so that other individuals who might also have been victimized will be aware of the thief and can check their own work's status. However, be cautious and report only facts; don't engage in slander or libel. Many bad guys are very quick to claim they're being defamed as a way of putting you, the wronged party, on the defensive. Ideally you should simply state something like: "On January 27th, 2011, I discovered that an individual calling himself ‘X' had taken my 2004 short story ‘Y' and posted it to ‘Z' website with his name attached as author. My story originally appeared in the June 2004 issue of ‘XYZ' magazine, and I am the copyright holder. Website ‘Z' was notified of the misappropriation and acted quickly to remove the file, and ‘X' has been notified as well." Keep it simple, don't engage in name-calling, and (if possible) attach any visual evidence as well. If only one other author reads your post and discovers that X has also stolen from them, you've done a good thing.

Now, what if you find out the plagiarist has been attempting to profit from the theft of your work (as outlined in Situation #3 above)? Well, you should still follow the steps outlined above, but you might also consider seeking legal counsel (and yes, you can consider that for a situation where the thief has not attempted to re-sell the work, but given how much of your life it's going to eat up…well, it's up to you). In this scenario, I'd especially suggest making a solid effort to find out if the plagiarist has committed theft with other authors; if enough of you band together, you can make a more solid case and perhaps share the effort that will be involved. You'll want to seek out a lawyer who is well versed in copyright law, and have your case clearly laid out (with appropriate documentation) before you approach the lawyer. You'll probably have the option of seeking criminal charges or merely pursuing civil action.

The last situation is piracy via bit torrent. In case you're not familiar with bit torrent, here's a brief explanation: Bit torrent is normally used in the case of very large files, like movies (most document files are comparatively small). Let's say you have a file that's 100 megabytes in size; well, if you host that file on your website and a lot of people start downloading it, you're likely to crash your server. But if you take that file and break it up into a hundred little 1 megabyte files hosted at a hundred different websites, nobody's server is going to crash. Bit torrent software takes the original file (called the "seed") and breaks it up into "bits"; each bit is encoded and linked to the next bit. Now, as you can probably guess, this makes it extraordinarily hard to remove material pirated and sent out as a bit torrent---not only do you have to track down a hundred different websites and notify all of them that they're hosting illegal material, but you first have to break the way the bit torrent has encoded the files. Add to that the number of bit torrent sites that are run as private members-only clubs, and you'll see why it's essentially impossible for an individual to delete pirated material. What all this means is, unfortunately, that you are out of luck if you find your material available as a bit torrent; all you can do is notify your publisher and try not to grit your teeth too much.

That's about it. Hopefully you'll never have a need to put anything here into action, but in case you do, I urge you again: DO IT. Let me offer up one final horror story: One writer who'd been plagiarized (and didn't know it) suddenly found himself accused of plagiarism when a prospective publisher found his story listed elsewhere with someone else's name. Your good name and work are your best assets as a writer. Protect them both.

(Special thanks to Hal Bodner for his legal expertise in preparing this article.)

© 2010 by Lisa Morton. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without the author's written permission. Permission is granted only for posting on the World Wide Web at http://www.horror.org/, though hyperlinks to the article at this URL are encouraged.

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