“Someone has copied our entire website!” Charles told me. “And,” he huffed, “their site ranks better than ours in Google!”

The website in question was an exact copy of Charles’ website. The imitator had published Charles’ content, mistakes and all, at an almost identical domain name. The only difference was the contact details.

Now and then, I hear about blatant rip-offs like this. And I believe Charles was rightly upset. So I helped him set things straight.

Keep in mind that there is nothing you can do to stop anyone from copying your website or other digital content. However, there are a number of things you can do to prevent them from actually publishing what they plagiarized. In some cases, you can even close them down.

I’ve been on both sides of the online copyright issue. When I ran a large Web-hosting company, I sometimes had to fight for clients’ rights against companies or individuals who copied their content. I also had to advise clients who were concerned about stepping over the line themselves. So I’ve come up with a process for fixing the problem.

Let me state straightaway that I am not an attorney. So if you require specific legal advice regarding your particular situation, you should contact a professional. Of course, attorneys cost money – a minimum of $2,500, in my experience, to handle an online plagiarism dispute.

And there is another reason for not bringing in an attorney right away: It immediately puts the other party on the defensive. The more resistant they are, the longer it will take to come to an agreement. You are seeking a result through shared cooperation here, not a fight. The procedure I had Charles follow took him an hour or so, and everything was resolved within one week.

Before I tell you how Charles and I solved his problem, you need to know what type of copying is acceptable – and what isn’t.

A Little Background on the Law

A copyright protects all sorts of creative works. According to Nolo.com, poetry, movies, software, sculptures, songs, video games, photographs, plays, sheet music, and even notes scribbled on the back of an envelope qualify. But the work must be original. “So long as the author toils without copying from someone else, the results are protected by copyright,” says Nolo. The work must also be “the result of at least some creative effort.” Nolo cites a telephone directory – which is just an alphabetical listing of names and phone numbers – as an example of “non-creative” work.

Another thing to remember is that you can’t copyright ideas. According to Nolo, “Copyright shelters only fixed, original, creative expression, not the ideas or facts upon which the expression is based.” This is important, because it’s entirely possible for two writers to write about the same idea at the same time – even if they’ve never met. My editor, Suzanne Richardson, told me that she often sees this firsthand when two (or more) ETR writers send her articles on exactly the same topic. So don’t get up in arms if another website has ideas similar to ideas on your site. Any Internet marketing company, for example, is going to have articles on its website about Google AdWords and affiliate marketing. That’s just the nature of the industry.

There’s a lot more to copyright law than this. (For details, check your local library.)
But the main point I want to make here is that if you publish original content on your website, it’s protected by copyright. You don’t even need to say “copyright 2008” – although adding this to your site can remind copy “borrowers” that they have to give you credit.

That credit is important. Anyone who wants to republish your content needs to have your permission. Some websites – including Early to Rise.com – freely give permission to others to republish their articles. In order to do so, they must simply include a little attribution.(See ETR’s instructions for republishing their content right here.) You might do the same. That way, no matter where readers find your content, they know it’s from you.

But what if your copyright-protected content is published without your permission? In that case, you can take action. Matt Turner, Agora’s chief legal counsel, points out: “If you think someone has copied your work unfairly, the burden will be on you (the burden of proof is always on the plaintiff, i.e, the party bringing the lawsuit) to show that the defendant’s writings are, in the words of the courts, ‘substantially similar to yours.'”

But you may not need to take your case to court. Here’s how I helped Charles get rid of his copycat…

What to Do First

The first step I took was to check who owned the domain name and see where it was hosted. You can do a “whois” lookup on any domain name to find details about the person who registered it – including their e-mail address. Many companies offering domain registrations – such as GoDaddy.com – allow you to do this type of search. Or you can use a service such as Whois.sc.

In Charles’ case, the domain name in question was registered to someone in India who was using a U.S.-based domain registration company.

To find out where the domain was being hosted, I turned to the “What’s that site running” tool at Netcraft.com. I discovered that the network address for the domain in question was owned by a U.S.-based hosting company.

Now we knew who owned the domain name, where it was registered, and where it was hosted.

Once again, I am not an attorney. But in my experience, simply sending a polite but firm letter or e-mail to the person listed on the domain registration will motivate them to change their errant ways. State the problem and ask that they remove your copyrighted content from their website immediately. Saying “please” and “thank you” is important. You don’t wish to ruffle feathers until you are sure the person’s intention was malicious or nefarious.

So that’s what we did in the case of Charles’ copycat. He sent a firm but polite e-mail to the person listed on the domain registration.

If at First You Don’t Succeed…

After four days, there was no response to the e-mail. So I had Charles move on to the next steps.

1. Contact the Web-hosting company. Most Web-hosting companies have an Acceptable Use Policy (AUP), and copyright violation almost always breaches that policy. They will also have a specific procedure that you must follow if one of their clients is hosting content that is in violation of copyright. This is easy to do, though it can be tedious.

2. Contact the domain registrar. The same thing applies to domain registrars. Most have policies preventing the use of domain names for illegal activities. Copyright theft certainly falls within that category.

If all you want to do is put an end to the other person’s illegal online activities – if, for instance, you don’t mind if they use the domain name for other, legal purposes – you can skip this step. But if the domain name in question is very similar to yours (as it was in Charles’ case), and it is being used to violate your copyright, you would contact the domain registrar and follow their procedure.

Let’s say someone registered the URL “Early2Rise.com”  and started to copy all of ETR’s content and ideas. ETR could claim that the domain was registered only to engage in illegal activities. As proof, they would cite the high degree of similarity to the ETR domain name, the theft of copyright-protected content, etc.

3. Contact the legal departments of search engines where the site violating your content is being indexed or featured. Each of the large search engines has a procedure you can follow for copyright theft.

4. Contact the copycat site’s credit card processor. In Charles’ case, the copycat site was advertising his content, products, and services, and using PayPal to accept payments for orders – orders they couldn’t fill. Charles contacted PayPal’s legal and fraud department.

The result of taking the above four actions was quick and severe. Within one week, PayPal prevented the offending site from being able to accept payments. The Web-hosting company canceled their Web-hosting account. Google removed the site’s content and links from its search engine. And because the domain registrar now considered the site’s domain name to be “disputed,” it could not be used until the registrant could prove that it was only to be used for legal, legitimate purposes. (Highly unlikely.)

Creating an online business is a lot of fun – but, as with any business, there are potential problems you need to be aware of. By taking advantage of lessons learned by people who’ve already “been there, done that,” you can avoid most of the pitfalls… and end up with a successful company that you will be proud to own.

[Ed. Note: There’s no need to worry about whether someone’s copying your content if you haven’t got a website. Of course, not having your own website and Internet business means you are missing out on one of the most enjoyable and lucrative ventures around. It’s super-easy to get an online business up and running. You can do it in 5 days. Learn how here.]

Although David hails from Blackpool, England – which is often referred to as the “Las Vegas of England” – he shunned a career in show business and instead followed a meandering career path overflowing with “life’s great experiences,” working or living in over 20 countries along the way. Chef, teacher of Transcendental Meditation, guest presenter on QVC, earthquake relief volunteer, CEO of a web hosting company, marketer at a radio station and all combined with years of direct marketing, PR and sales experience for clients as diverse as health food stores, small charities and right up to multinational public companies.
David brought unique talent and experience to his role for six years as Senior Internet Consultant to Agora Publishing Group. Working closely with Agora’s publishers and marketers to test new ideas and marketing campaigns, Agora’s Internet revenues topped $200 million in 2007. David understands and can communicate fluently with creative “right-brain” marketers and analytical “left-brain” IT and software teams, all with equal ease. He has a proven track record for generating results and creative thinking and excels at making trouble to find new ways of making things happen!
He lives on a small farm close to Mount Hood in Oregon with his wife Cinda, a veterinarian, and their four children and a menagerie of animals (no more, please!). When not marketing or brainstorming you’ll find David following a dream of self-sufficiency for food, power and water within 10 years, tending the land and caring for the farm and animals. Not surprisingly, David is an engaging and knowledgeable speaker with many amusing anecdotes from his work and travels over the years.