The High Cost of Stealing Digital Content

Why do some folks think that just because stealing digital content is easy, it’s OK?

Maybe a generation who learned to steal online music and movies just doesn’t have the same view of stealing content?

Maybe the stress of producing fresh content (a necessity in a post-Panda search engine ranking world) gets to be too much, causing the website owner to snap and just start copying content?

Maybe the success of media outlets relying on syndicated content (such as Business2Community, Social Media Today and others) makes folks think they can just copy content and get huge readership?

Whatever the rationale, I see red every time I find someone stealing digital content from my sight. Let me add that, as someone who spends a HUGE amount of time crafting unique content, imitation IS NOT the most sincere form of flattery. It’s theft and it’s not right!

Stealing digital content can also cost you — big time.

The high cost of stealing digital content

It’s really easy to tell if someone is stealing digital content from your site — all digital content is time-stamped with the upload time. And, the penalties for stealing digital content are high. Here are just a few examples of how businesses pay a high price for stealing digital content.

Damage search engine rankings

Google has serious penalties for stealing digital content — they simply ding your search engine rankings. Stealing digital content is just wrong, according to Matt Cutts at Google. It’s one thing to quote another website’s content and quite another to steal all or most of your content from other site. If you’re stealing digital content, you just won’t show up when users search — only the original content shows up.

Damage reputation

When I find someone stealing digital content from my site, I often visit the site to ensure the material was indeed stolen and not simply quoted or paraphrased (both are legal uses of content — see below). I then leave a scathing comment on the site warning against stealing digital content from my site and highlighting how unethical the website owner is. Sometimes these comments don’t appear on the site because the owner moderates comments, but in other cases, the comment damages the credibility of the website.

Removal of content

Under the DMCA, copy protected material can be removed from your website. Recently, I reported a user with a WordPress blog for violating copyright by cutting and pasting a post, including the images, to their WordPress hosted blog. After filing for relief, WordPress contacted the website owner with a warning and removed the offensive post.

Google, Bing, and other search engines offer a means to remove content when websites willfully steal digital content. It can take a little time, but the offending material is removed.

Pay for content

I’ve heard of situations where a blog owner copied an image illegally, then received a bill for $500 from the content owner. My guess is this is becoming more common as Google improves its image recognition software.

Civil and criminal penalties

The DMCA provides civil penalties for stealing digital content that include damages and court costs, making stealing digital content expensive. Criminal charges are also possible under DMCA when the website benefits financially from stealing digital content — and even having Adsense income might be enough to meet this penalty. Criminal penalties include $500,000 fines or 5 years in prison for a first offense and $1,000,000 or 10 years in prison for subsequent offenses.

When you’re stealing digital content

Content, including words and images, is protected under international copyright laws the second it’s published. Period. Copying text or images is stealing — even if you give credit to the person or website that originally created the content. Website owners don’t have to file for copyright, it’s implied when they publish unique content on their sites. I post a copyright notice under the Creative Commons in the footer of my homepage, however.

Now, I’m not a lawyer and the laws surrounding the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), as with all copyright law, is a little squishy, but, in general, DMCA protects digital content in the US and provides severe penalties for infringement — stealing digital content. Based on my reading of the act and layman’s knowledge of copyright, here’s my take on how to avoid charges of stealing digital content:

Of course, not all copy and paste is an infringement of the DMCA. For instance, you’re entitled to quote the original article, with attribution. In fact, this is both common and a good practice for lending credibility to your content.

Stealing digital images

Images are a little more dicey. In general, you can re-purpose content published by others (with attribution) under so called, Fair Use exceptions. These fair use exceptions, which is what makes quoting someone else legal, involve using a small portion of the original content (with attribution). Fair use also covers using content for educational purposes by teachers and students. However, images often fall outside fair use exceptions unless you’re using someone’s brand logo (when referring to the brand) or images posted for the purpose of sharing (such as images of a businesses’ executives).

Arguably, businesses create infographics for the express purpose of sharing them with others. I use this tool myself as a means to generate backlinks to my site (which has diminishing returns with the new Google ranking algorithm) and establish my credibility.

Infographics, done well, should include a link back to the creator, so copying infographics likely falls within fair use exceptions. In fact, I’m often approached by infographic creators or their social media agencies bringing their new infographics to my attention and encouraging me to use them within my content. Since I love infographics, I often use them in my posts, as many of you already know.

The same often goes for charts and other images created by website owners. They include their brand and logo as a means to build their reputation when you share the content.

Stealing other images does not fall within fair use exceptions. In preparing this post, I even ran across a company using someone’s family photos as images in their advertising – a definite no-no and a possible privacy issue in addition to copyright infringement.

How to avoid stealing digital content

  1. Copyscape – I run guest posts through Copyscape (which only costs a few pennies) to ensure the material is unique to my site and that I’m not supporting those stealing digital content.
  2. Make sure your use falls within fair use exceptions by copying less than 10% of the original content.
  3. Buy images, don’t steal them. Flickr has a creative commons area containing fair use images you can use free, as long as you’re not creating something to sell from them — like putting them on t-shirts or mugs. I use 123rf.com as a source of high-quality, inexpensive images. I can use them for about $1 apiece as long as I’m not using them on a commercial product. Dreamstime for more unique images that are a little more expensive. There’s also Shutterstock and a host of other firms selling images.
  4. Recognize the penalties for stealing digital content outweigh any benefits. And, just don’t do it. Many website owners are happy — even flattered — to let you use their content. Simply contact them and ask. I’ve done this many times when someone created a great image or chart that I wanted to include in a blog post.

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