Intellectual Property Law – Does it Help Writers and Bloggers?

Proponents of copyright and intellectual property laws will often cite defense of writers, artists, and research scientists as a justification for increasingly harsh penalties and legal intervention over content duplication, but is this necessarily a benefit independent internet authors and bloggers?

Anyone who runs a blog or website has to deal with forms of content theft and unauthorized duplication.  RSS feeds make infringement easier than ever – in fact, duplicating someone’s content can be practically automated.  A few modifications in the script can scrub links out, or some who also want to use your content to generate links may take a chunk of your article, add a “nofollow” link back to your original source, and then ping your blog requesting a link.  If you don’t nofollow or manually review trackback links, this could trick some search engines into thinking the copy is the original!

Yet, with all this theoretically law-breaking activity going on, why aren’t more bloggers suing or pursuing legal options?

Fighting Back for Free

Well, even speaking to a lawyer can be an expensive prospect – and going to trial is orders of expense higher.  For someone who makes a living out of blogging, its hard to comprehend spending so much money over something that can happen several times a post.  There’s also a lot of cheaper and easier ways to deal with the problem.

The first way to prove the originality of your content is extremely straightforward and it will solve the problem for the most part as far as search engine traffic is concerned.  Get some pagerank to your domain, get some deeplinks to your content, and make sure to arrange your content in a hierarchy that lets that link juice flow.  Scraper sites that steal content generally have very little promotion invested in them.  While I can’t say the exact algorithms that Google and Yahoo and MSN use to determine an original from a copy, it does seem like the bias lands heavily toward the one with a higher pagerank.

Another long time staple in the war against online content theft is pic swapping.  Basically, this involves finding out that someone has duplicated a piece of your content that includes an image file of some type. When you find someone copying a site, specifically if they’re displaying the image from your server, you can just place a new picture in its place and embarass the scraper.  You might put something like “This was stolen from yourdomain.tld” or something graphically offensive.  Be creative enough and your response makes good linkbait in its own right.

The DMCA Bluff

While going to court may be incredibly expensive, threatening to do so isn’t.  In fact, the DMCA notification makes this incredibly easy.  All you need to do is fill out a notification form and send it off to the website’s host.  Most hosts will just deactivate the offending account, because few scrapers are willing to protect their throw-away domains by signing off on an affidavit that submits to the judgment of a U.S. federal court.  Of course, you might end up with more than you bargained for if they do actually file a counter-notification and you’re forced to meet them in court.

Potential Legal Liabilities to Bloggers

Even if its not always practical to enforce the law, there’s a risk it could be used against a blogger or author.  The easiest way to avoid this potential problem is, of course, to be sure that you’re not using someone else’s words or images.  When you’re writing a page, this is easy.

However, if you’re crowd-sourcing anything – and this includes comments or forum posts – there’s a risk that your visitors could add something that’s claimed by someone else!

Unfortunately, this is a lot more common than many people would consider.  This is especially true for forums that cover news and current events debate.  Many websites fly under the radar and get away with it, but there have been some notable examples where the courts have ruled against the domain owners despite the defense of users having contributed the material.

So basically, complete automation doesn’t work.  You can’t really just walk away from your website no matter how much traffic its building, no matter how active its users are, no matter how much money you’re earning and need to spend.  At some point, content provided by your surfers needs to be reviewed!  If you can find some trustworthy regulars who can moderate, you may just be able to outsource this required manual review.  If you make enough, you can even hire someone to do it – but at the end of the day, an open-ended site with no review is a target for a legal takedown.

The Good News Is…

Most bloggers won’t have to deal with copyright lawsuits as long as they’re writing original content.  The bad news is that its something that could potentially “just happen” regardless of the writer/blogger’s intent.

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