Worried About Your Work Being Stolen?

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

If you write and publish books or blog posts (or submit to agents, editors and publishers), you may worry someone might steal your work. I have two things to say about this:

1. Yes, at some point there is a good chance somebody will steal your work.

2. Try not to spend too much time or energy worrying about it.

Why do I say this? Let’s look at a couple of ways the written word is stolen.

Book Pirating

Every so often, I receive an alarmed email from one of my authors who has just stumbled upon their book offered – free! – on one of the “free e-book” websites. The author wants to know… “What do I do?! How do I stop them?!”

ThiefThe sad truth is that our quaint ideas of intellectual property and copyright are being dismissed by a certain segment of the population. These people have no problem uploading or downloading the work of an artist or writer.

What you can do:

If you’re with a traditional publisher, you should report these finds to your editor, who will contact the legal department. Make sure to include complete information: the name of the website, the  name of the person who uploaded it, and the direct URL (link). Some publishers aggressively combat pirates, while others don’t have the resources for this. But at least you should let them know.

If you’re publishing independently, or if your publisher doesn’t actively approach pirates, you can contact the site yourself, inform them you own the copyright of the work, and request they remove it. You may have to be persistent, but most of the sites will comply. I found a couple of places online that give specific instructions on how to deal with pirates: Stephanie Lawton’s Steps to Deal with Book Piracy and  WikiHow: How to Combat Book Piracy.

Why you shouldn’t worry too much:

It’s worth approaching pirates and asking them to remove your material. It burns that people will steal the product of your hard work — the creation of your sweat, tears and imagination. But try not to panic:

(1) Pirating is commonplace; so as a professional, you’re best served by taking it in stride and dealing with it appropriately. (2) People who download books from pirate sites probably don’t purchase many books legitimately, so you may not lose much in the way of revenue just because your book is on a pirate site.

Plagiarism

There have been some high-profile plagiarism cases in the news involving famous authors, but you don’t have to be famous to experience this headache. Plagiarism is growing more common, and if you’re a blogger, you’re a likely victim. There are malicious plagiarists out there, whose M.O. is to regularly lift other peoples’ work and post it with neither attribution nor linkage. Others are not quite so intentional about it, but will use your work in a moment of writer’s block, insecurity, or just plain ignorance.

What you can do:

If this is an online situation, the best approach is to contact the offender directly, let them know they’ve violated your copyright, and ask them to remove the material. There is no need to be anything but polite; some people truly don’t understand Fair Use, especially younger people who have grown up in a world of free online content. (I had a ridiculously long argument with my 16-year-old because she refused to believe that people actually own the photos and other images she finds online.)

If that doesn’t work, you can try contacting the blogger’s host company, or use the “public embarrassment” approach and shame them into removing your material.

I found a blogger who has some good, practical advice on responding to online plagiarism: Richard Byrne at Free Technology for Teachers.

If you find that someone has plagiarized your book in another book, contact your publisher with full details and proof, and handle it with them.

Why you shouldn’t worry too much:

Your ideas and words have value, particularly in the way YOU express them. You definitely want to do all you can to keep them as your own. Plus, just like pirating, it can make you incredibly angry to find someone has stolen your work. Yet, a little plagiarism isn’t going to kill your career. In most cases, the emotional toll is far worse than any actual damage. So take heart — the person who plagiarizes has worse troubles than you.

Do you worry a lot about your work being stolen? Have you dealt with pirates or plagiarism? How did you respond emotionally, and what action did you take?

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Image credit: ljupco / 123RF Stock Photo
 

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68 Comments

  • Angela Mills says:

    I have a question. I’m finishing up my first novel and I feel it’s a pretty timely, unique idea. I have scoured Christian fiction bookstores and catalogs and haven’t found any book with this kind of plot/setting. Should I keep the idea to myself until I find an agent and get it sold? I’m one of those people that doesn’t like to talk about what I’m writing anyway, but I’m trying to figure out how to answer when other writers ask what my book is about. Not that I think anyone is out to steal ideas! I would just be bummed if someone did it before I could :)

    • Angela Mills says:

      Oh, and I totally had someone steal a post, word for word, from my blog and they were way bigger than me, so it had thousands of views. I was annoyed, but weirdly flattered, lol.

    • Ask yourself this – what purpose would be served by describing it, other than satisfying the idle curiosity of another?

      If it’ll cause you worry, I’d say – don’t describe it to anyone, or be maddeningly vague. (“What’s ‘Hamlet’ about?”, answered Shakespeare, “Oh, just a dude who can’t deal with his really dysfunctional family, kind of like ‘The Simpsons’.”)

      One thing to keep in mind, though, is that at some point you may want to join a crit group or get beta readers – and then you will have to share it.

    • Rachelle Gardner Rachelle Gardner says:

      Angela, great question, and one I get a lot. I’m going to focus next week’s post on answering this one. Meanwhile, think about this. You could tell your idea to 100 people and they could ALL decide to write a book on your exact same topic, and we would end up 100 completely different books.

      • Angela Mills says:

        Thanks for the reply, and you are of course so right :) Glad to know you get asked this often, it means I’m not a crazy weirdo. Or if I am, I have plenty of company!

    • Angela, I had a similar situation to you where I struck upon a unique plot/setting/book structure. When it came time to craft the proposal though, it was really tough finding good comparables. There were NO books like it! That’s a good thing if it sells, but it has to be sold first. Editors want to know what books YOUR book will sit next to on the bookstore shelf.
      It wasn’t a problem I had anticipated, so I thought I’d give you a heads-up. Be thinking now what comps you’ll put on your proposal!

    • Ted says:

      I wouldn’t be too concerned. Someone, somewhere has thought of the same AWESOME idea. What you see on the shelves today are books that were contracted years ago.

      Besides it will be your voice, and your unique style will make the difference.

      Also consider how long its taken for you to write the book and get it ready.

      Let’s take a hypothetical. Let’s say today I heard your idea today and hypothetically thought it was THE BEST IDEAR EVARRRRR and rushed out to start writing a book. Best case scenario, I pump out 3000 to 5000 words a day, I’ve got a first draft in two or three weeks, but its probably going to a month. But that’s just a first draft and as we all know, those tend to not be that great.

      It’s going to be six months to a year before I’ve got something that I could hope to pitch.

    • Manuel Noval says:

      I’ve got a question for y’all. You haven’t registered your book at the US copyright office and somebody steals your work and has it copyrighted themselves. What can you do?

  • Iola says:

    One blogger I know had her material used on another website. They wouldn’t acknowledge her, so she contacted the host (Go Daddy, I think). They investigated and removed the whole website.

    What about dcma.com? Have you used them?

    • Rachelle Gardner Rachelle Gardner says:

      Yes, if you read the detailed instructions on combating piracy on some of the other sites I linked, they talk about DCMA.

  • Anita says:

    Oops, you’ve just reminded me to go back and give credit to the web site that I got my blog post picture from. Is it wrong to use their art when I give credit to them?

    • Rachelle Gardner Rachelle Gardner says:

      Yes, it is wrong unless you’ve purchased it from them or at least received written permission in advance.

    • Rachelle Gardner Rachelle Gardner says:

      Anita, I use images in every single post, and I buy them from 123RF or iStockPhoto. You can find yourself in a world of trouble if you just rip images from Google.

      • Sandy Cooper says:

        When I first started blogging, I copied/pasted all my blog photos from Google Images. I had no idea I was doing anything wrong.

        A few years ago, when I discovered this was actually stealing, I started taking my own photos and using those instead. Recently, someone contacted me about I post I wrote back in 2008 where I used his image, asking me to either give him credit or remove it. I apologized and promptly gave him credit.

        I really need to go back through all those old posts and remove those images.

        I feel terrible. :(

    • April says:

      If you can find a photo with Creative Commons rights (for a blog, you’d want to use the commercial type, not non-commercial), then you can use the image with credit and you’ll be acting within the copyright they’ve set.

      To find some, you can go to http://photopin.com, type in your keyword, and then check “commercial” under “license type” to find some appropriate photo results to sift through.

      But always go to the image’s specific page and double check what copyright settings they have their photo set to. Once a search turned up a photo for me that didn’t have CC copyright on it. It’s usually correct though.

      • Annabelle says:

        If you’re going to use someone else’s photos in your blog, it’s the same as using someone else’s authored work, there is no difference, even when you don’t know who’s photo that is.

        If you’re going to use photography, either take photos yourself or as Rachelle says, purchase them from a stock agency.

  • I’m not worried about it at all. There’s no way to prevent it, so why think about it?

    If it happens, I’ll deal with it then.

    I was still teaching when online plagiarism in the form of ‘papers for sale’ and such became rampant.

    I rarely had this problem, because I included personalized (to each student) parameters for engineering design in each assignment, but those who gave ‘straight’ assignments had to buy – at their own expense – rather costly plagiarism-checking software.

    I dealt summarily with the plagiarism attempts that crossed my desk. The students in question received a lively verbal correction and a choice – produce a new try at the assignment, three times longer, in longhand, or fail the class.

    I endeavoured to be positive enough in making my point that there would be no backchat, for I really hate backchat.

  • When I started sending my work for people to read and crit, my husband was about to pop his eyebrows off with fear. Apparently some people will steal scientific papers on the pollenation habits of blue spruce.

    Anyone need Ambien? Here’s a wee read instead. Zzzzz.

    In his field of work, theft was rampant.
    In mine, not so much. I think mine would be easy to spot, because and as far as I know, not too many people have jumped down the rabbit hole with the same subject manner as moi.

    • And before anyone thinks I’m dissing my husband, absolutely not. I’m dissing his incredibly complicated field of work. And things like embyrogenesis take a finer scientific mind than mine to compute.

    • Plagiarism in the scientific community hews to one rule – publish it first, and you’re home free.

      Perhaps part of its acceptance comes from a militantly atheism that is prevalent in the scientific community, which makes the implementation of professional Darwinism the highest virtue?

      • That’s because the scientific community rewards the idea, not the writing. Doesn’t matter how poorly-written your paper is (in fact, many disciplines pride themselves on how poorly their standard papers are done); whoever publishes the new, beautiful little idea first gets all the credit. On the other hand, you could have the next Harry Potter for an idea, but if you don’t execute it well, nobody really cares.

        Yes, I’m exaggerating just a skosh, but that really is the difference. As Rachelle pointed out above, you could give the same idea to 100 people and get 100 different stories. Writing contests do that all the time. And besides, who’d’a thunk a story about a girl on her period who gets angry enough to discover she had special abilities might do well, hmm?

  • What would Jesus do? What if the plagiarized words are spiritual insights that bring glory to God? Do I own words inspired by the Spirit?

    Just thinkin’ out loud. Thus far, no one has deemed my words worthy of stealing :^)

    • Rachelle Gardner Rachelle Gardner says:

      And maybe this is another reason I advise not panicking about it. :-)

    • You have a sweet point there, Shirlee … giving God glory and taking none ourselves … I’ll be meditating on that today.

      I remember the first time I spoke … a dear writer/speaker friend said, “You’ll receive accolades … but don’t forget to lay them at Jesus’ feet.” Her words come to mind so often.

  • This is an excellent post and a topic I don’t see addressed often, which is ironic because it is often on writers’ minds. I think you give very practical and sensible advice. And I agree: Don’t spend all that much time worrying about it. Be aware, of course, and report any incidents of theft, but writers should focus on what they CAN control, and that’s writing a kick-butt book.

  • I don’t want anyone to steal my words, but I am more concerned that I’ll unintentionally steal someone else’s words. I was screamed … and I mean screamed at … arms flailing … by my 6th grade reading teacher for this very thing … because I failed to read a book for a book report, and I used words from the cover to cover me. Have mercy! Let me just say … I had just been through my parent’s divorce, relocated cities, new to this school, separated from beloved dad and friends … and life was literally falling apart on me. But I learned my lesson!

    But when writing my nonfiction book … I was so afraid I’d accidentally use something my favorite Bible teacher had taught me … something comes to your mind and you are thinking it is God teaching you … then you get terrified wondering if you heard it from someone else. So I made sure to quote her when I could, and give credit to her in my acknowledgements … hoping I didn’t overlook a thing. That truly is my biggest concern … and I don’t do those kind of Bible studies as much anymore … more independent … for that very reason.(I guess I really didn’t stick to the subject at hand!)

  • Stephanie says:

    There are a ton of ways to get around the “what is your book about?” question. I generally use a vague approach: “Boy meets girl, girl is a zombie, girl eats boy’s face, everybody lives happy ever after etc…”

    What I would be very interested in hearing your take on is when you are seeking representation for your amazingly well written, completed, and polished novel and a book with 80% of your plotline gets published by one of the Big 6.

    Do you start over? Do you completely change everything as to not waste the two long years of your life dedicated to writing this book? What does one do?

  • One thing I like to do while writing is upload my work to Dropbox.com. I have found that by using this I not only backup my work, bur I also have date of when my work was done. One of my former instructors at Southern Methodist University had all of us use this for his class – just thought I’d pass it along.

    Another method I utilize is to never post my material on any blog. Instead, I try to begin a conversation with thoughts, pictures and questions for others to build their own conclusion. Doing this also helps me build a better story. I’m fairly vague when answering the question: “What’s your book about?” I usually keep my answer down to a simple log-line and let them keep wondering :)

    So far this has worked for me. Am I completely void of thievery? That’s highly doubtful. All I can do is my best to protect it, and then to place my work in God’s hands. He is the one after all who gave me the words. I’ll leave to Him to protect it.

    I liked what you said, Rachelle in regards to the same story written a 100 different ways. That’s true! There is nothing new under the sun!

  • Gayla Grace says:

    I found almost an entire article I’d written on the importance of music lessons for children on a music site that offers piano and guitar lessons. At first it angered me but then I decided to take it as a complement that they liked my words so much they used them as their own. However, I did contact the owner of the site and politely ask that he remove it and it he did.

  • NLBHorton says:

    Yes, I have been the victim of plagiarism—twice, in my old marketing/advertising career. In one instance, a potential client stole part of a proposal, and used it in the finished product he created himself. In the second instance, a graphic designer stole a logo for a fabulous client, whose product happened to be nationally recognized. In both instances, I retained an attorney because I held the copyright. It was an expensive process, but in the end, profitable.

    It also was arduous, and emotionally trying. You really do have to weigh the costs and benefits of pursuing plagiarism. If you pursue legal recourse, be prepared for a long battle that can distract you from other pursuits (such as producing more manuscripts) .

    Would I engage an attorney again under these circumstances? Yes. Would I enjoy it? No. Am I hyper-discreet about what I release about my literary endeavor? You bet. “Proprietary” is my middle name.

  • I like how you emphasize “Don’t panic” Good words there. Panicking doesn’t help anything. To my knowledge no one has stolen any of what I’ve written. I appreciate the steps you offer in the event that this does happen. I always appreciate your calm way of handling topics like this one. Thanks for sharing your wisdom!

  • Neil Ansell says:

    My first book has turned up on literally dozens of pirate sites, and I have never worried about it or done anything about it. The people who use these sites would never pay for anything anyway, so I don’t believe I’m really losing sales. There was one particularly cheeky site which was actually selling pirated copies of my book for iphone. I thought my new book was pirate proof as it’s currently only available in hardback – no ebook yet – but no, it only slowed them down, as someone has now gone to the trouble of scanning it for the purposes of piracy. They really are cheeky little blighters, but I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.

  • R.T. Edwins says:

    This was why I went to the trouble to actually register my copyright with the U.S. Copyright office. It wasn’t a lot of money and gave me the peace of mind to know that if anyone ever did try to steal my work or plagiarize it I had legal grounds to pursue them. Would I ever do so? It would depend on the level of damages caused by it. If it’s a small-fry pirate and a handful of “I will never pay for anything online” people downloaded it, I wouldn’t worry about it. Might send them a nasty email letting them know that if they don’t take it down I’ll be forced to take legal action, but that would probably be enough.

    As a blogger, on the other hand, it is very important to give credit where credit is due and be very careful about what you post. I used to include pictures with every post on my blog, but after discovering a fellow blog was sued for using a photo they got off the internet, I decided to stop the practice. Now I only ever post my own content with links to sites that provided insight or inspired the content, not only because it keeps me safe from infringement, but it’s also a nice thing to give other blogs some traffic they might not normally get.

    • Last summer, I hosted a very famous person on my blog. I also used his photo on my one sheet for ACFW. In both instances, I got his permission and approval on each and every word I said about him, and most of the photos I used were uploaded from his blog and he approved of them. For the one-sheet, all I had to do was give him photo credit, big enough to read, and he was fine with the outcome, and non-compensated use of his image.
      But he was specific about the use of his name and image without permission. I’d have been in big trouble.

    • Rachelle Gardner Rachelle Gardner says:

      R.T., photos are an important part of blog posts, and it’s quite manageable to get a subscription to a photo site, so you can have complete access whenever you want. I use 123RF more than any other site and find it the most affordable; I buy credits in bulk so I can download at will. The images I use are about $1 a piece and I write 12 blog posts a month. I find the peace of mind to be totally worth $12 a month!

    • Rachelle Gardner Rachelle Gardner says:

      R.T. if you look at the very end of this post, you’ll see the image credit with a link. Clicking that link takes you straight through to where I got the image. The photo site conveniently provides the HTML for that photo credit line, so all I do is copy and paste it into my post after inserting the photo. Just wanted to let you know how easy it is!

  • I hope some day soon to be widely distributed enough to find my work being pirated.

  • I’ve often wondered about this, Rachelle, especially the sharing ideas thing that Angela asked about. I look forward to your blog post on that topic next week!

  • I haven’t had it happen to me personally–unless you want to count fanfiction stories–but in working with book promotion, I’ve had a blogger copy nearly word-for-word the review from another blogger. Whether the copier didn’t have time to read the book or simply didn’t know how to express her thoughts on it, she refused to admit it when asked about it. After this happened twice I stopped working with her.

  • Lori says:

    I’ve haven’t had anyone pirate or plagerize my writings. I write for engineers and most of the time I received the credit that I am due. However, when I am writing for them it is considered “work made for hire”. I don’t own any rights. I get paid because I am a employee.

    When I publish my novel that will be a different story.

    However, I have been learning about copyrights because I had someone take credit for a labyrinth design that I created. One cannot do anything legally unless a copyright is registered. I am waiting for my registration so I can take action.

    Emotionally I feel like I was betrayed because I know this person and this person was a dear friend. I felt used and violated because this person knew how much work I put into this and what this design meant to me.

  • NLBHorton says:

    First, I AM NOT AN ATTORNEY.

    I’m reading a lot of comments here about people filing for copyright on their work. Our attorney says that first-usage is key, as is using the copyright icon and stating a work is copyrighted. In other words, as Lisa Berstein suggests, document when you produce the work via storing it with a third party, and use the copyright icon as you state the work is copyrighted.

    I send manuscripts (burned to a CD, with a hard copy) to myself via registered mail when the first and last drafts are finished. I DON’T OPEN THE ENVELOPE OR BOX when I receive it from myself; the government considers the postmark of an unopened envelope or package validation of the date of first usage.

    I spoke with the attorney at length when we redesigned my website almost a year ago, and he reassured me that following the first-usage protocol covers at least 90 percent of the infringement issues. I guess each of us has to decide if the 10-percent risk merits filing for copyright.

  • My work is stolen ALL the time. I have TYNT Publisher on my blog that tells me how much of my content is copied on my site. Anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 words are copied and posted elsewhere every month.

    I have an automatic reference back to my blog that copies with what ever someone lifts from my blog, but it’s easy to just erase that link and post it anyway. I do have a Creative Commons message which I hope will keep honest people honest :)

  • Daniel J. Parker says:

    Copyrighting your creative work with the US Copyright office will not prevent your work from being stolen or pirated, but it can provide legal, definitive proof that you wrote it and when you wrote it. It is a very strong enforcement tool. Other than the cost of a great coffee mug and a great bag of coffee, it may be best $35.00 that a writer can spend.

  • Sue Harrison says:

    Such a great post, Rachelle! I wish I would have read it years ago. When I was a PR writer for a university, I sent out hundreds of articles to thousands of newspapers over the years. You’re a behind the scenes writer when you do that and you don’t expect a byline, but I was always frustrated when a paper picked up my article and one of the reporters used it word for word and added their own byline. Rude! BUT, I knew the university was getting needed PR, so it was a good trade off!

  • After setting up a “Google Alert” on the title of my book I was notified of two sites purporting to offer it as a free download. It kind of freaked me out so I emailed my publisher’s rights officer, who thanked me for letting them know and followed up to have page removed. They said they thought these were probably scam sites rather than actual pirated copies.

  • Kev says:

    This has now got me thinking. I was going to have a go at crowdfunding and one of the perks was going to be a pick of a part of my story. I grew in a childrens home {not bad] I have written about each room ,a total of 25 rooms and 5+ extras.I was going to let people choose a room.I would give the first and 2nd draft which is in cursive.I was hoping the theme Good Will hunting will have some interest and maybe get some feedback on my poor writing.I have one advantage on you good people and thats i’ll never make a writer ,I just want my story told.

  • donnie says:

    Yes – just a “wee-bit” concerned.

    My dog chewed up my MS one time. I guess that counts as being “stolen” by a K-9. I didn’t mind, he is actually very literary minded.

  • krmission says:

    Very informative and enlightening to us writing. Thanks!

  • Neurotic Workaholic says:

    I’ve never been published, but I have seen lines that I wrote for my blog and Twitter show up in other people’s blogs/Twitter pages. It definitely made me very angry, because those were my words and they passed them off as their own! And they often had many more followers than I did, which made me wonder why they felt the need to steal my writing if they were already good writers themselves.

  • Mark Kennard says:

    The fact that people will steal in such a way is profoundly disquieting.

  • Janet B says:

    I just came across this and was disturbed by the incorrect statements about using a poor man’s copyright.
    NOTE: A poor man’s copyright isn’t valid or legally binding in the USA. Check out the copyright laws in your country.

    Check out these articles for the US.

    http://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-general.html#poorman

    http://www.writerswrite.com/journal/sept97/cew2.htm

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