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How would you like to find your website on sale for less than the cost of a sandwich? This is exactly what happened to Roger Montti of www.martinibuster.com who found one of his websites, one of his entire websites, for sale on eBay for $8 a copy. Montti is an award winning web publisher and is no stranger to content theft. His first experience was when he discovered a web designer had stolen his website’s layout including the HTML, CSS and images and then populated the site with their own content. He discovered the theft when he happened to search in Google for a phrase on his contact page (a phrase the thief didn’t remove).

“This was my first experience with content theft. I was livid,” Montti said. “So I exercised my rights under a U.S. law known as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) that empowers content producers with tools to fight back against content thieves.”

Montti submitted a DMCA take down notice through Google, asking them to remove the website from their search results. Google responded by notifying the thief that their website would be removed from Google if they didn’t resolve the matter. The thief apologized and promptly removed the content.

Montti has also contacted website owners directly via a warning letter and asking that they remove his content or he will be forced to submit a DMCA notice. This too has resulted in his content being removed from offending sites.

Why do so many websites copy and paste content from other websites? Montti believes that most content theft stems from ignorance. “Many recipients of my notice believed that as long as they linked back to the source of the stolen content or graphics it was okay to publish online. Others believed that anything that is published online was in the public domain. This is what you the creative artist are up against.”

How much of someone’s creative work can you legally use?

Some of Montti’s examples are extreme and most would agree that they are straightforward cases of theft, but what about the Ordinary Joe who gets inspired by looking at someone else’s logo or website? What if the original artist, or company who owns the art, thinks Joe copied their design a little too closely? Is it a case of flattery, or can Joe find himself in court for copyright infringement?

According to David M. Adler, a Chicago, Illinois based attorney who focuses on intellectual property, media and entertainment, “For designs, If you are ‘inspired by’ someone else’s work and design a new creative work, you most likely will not be infringing. For a logo that is used as a source identifier, even if the design is distinctive, it may be infringing.”

Exactly how much of someone’s work can you use without permission before you start risking copyright infringement, the receipt of a nasty DMCA notice or worse? According to copyright.gov’s FAQ page, “There are no legal rules permitting the use of a specific number of words, a certain number of musical notes, or percentage of a work.”

That’s not much help, but at least copyright.gov state elsewhere on the site that, “The safest course is to get permission from the copyright owner before using copyrighted material.”

Adler offers these guidelines for graphic designers, writers and other creatives.

“What you learned in grade school will serve you best: do you own work, don’t copy, give credit where credit is due. Copyright infringement and trademark infringement are highly nuanced areas of the law and are determined on a case-by-case basis. A designer’s independently-developed original creative work will not be found to be infringing. However, if you have doubts about whether your work infringes someone else’s, then it probably does.”

Is your work being passed off as someone else’s?

Here are a couple of ways you can police your creative work online.

Images and photos

In addition to searching by file name and/or description in Google Images, you can upload an image or paste an image’s URL by clicking on the camera icon on the right-hand side of the search box. You’ll be prompted to paste the URL of an image or upload an image.

GoogleImages-001.pngCaption: Google Images, homepage. Note the camera icon on the right-hand side of the search box.

GoogleImages-002.pngCaption: Google Images, the resulting page after the camera is clicked.

The results aren’t perfect (sadly, I’m not a Russian underwear model) but they can help you spot theft. If you don’t mind paying for a service, www.digimarc.com can help you monitor your images for about $50 a year.

GoogleImages-003.pngCaption: Google Images, results page. After I submitted my profile picture.

Copy

If monitoring copy is your concern, you can always copy/paste a portion of your website copy in quotes into Google’s search field to see if your copy is being used on other sites. www.copyscape.com is a paid service that can help you monitor the web for plagiarism for about $5 a month if you have a budget for a monitoring service.

When is imitation no longer flattery to you?

When does imitation go beyond flattery and turn into theft or copyright infringement in your eyes? At what point would you send a DMCA notice or contact an attorney about copyright infringement? Let us know in the comments.

Intellectual property (IP) is a complicated topic. This article is not and should not be considered legal advice. Consider contacting a lawyer if you feel you have been the victim of content theft, copyright infringement or trademark infringement.

First featured image credit: Agustin Croxatto/iStockphoto.