In today’s era of sharing memes on Facebook and reposting inspirational quotes on Instagram, it can feel like our society has lost sight of the importance of paying attribution to the original content creator. This habit is especially problematic for entrepreneurs, since copyright infringement is one of the most common breaches affecting small businesses — making it all the more important to know what to do if you suspect copyright infringement.
For starters, it's helpful to know what exactly qualifies as copyrighted work. The United States Trademark & Patent Office defines a copyright as "original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture." In order for your work to be protect by copyright, you must follow the process laid out at the U.S. Copyright Offices to register your copyright for your work. As far as actual copyright infringement goes, the U.S. Copyright Offices explains that it "occurs when a copyrighted work is reproduced, distributed, performed, publicly displayed, or made into a derivative work without the permission of the copyright owner."
All of this is to say that once your work is registered with the U.S. Copyright Offices, it's possible for you to copyright infringement chargers against anyone who uses your work without your permission. If you suspect this may be the case, here's what you need to do:
There are a lot of ways to have intellectual property stolen, so there's quite a bit of gray area in how to handle it. Familiarize yourself with Fair Use rules and review your own work to see what protections are in place. Did you write an article for a magazine without a contract and they syndicated it out? Your case is weaker without a contract, so you might not have a leg to stand on. But if you designed a logo for your business and you see that someone else replicated it exactly, you may have a stronger case.
Ask a couple of creatives if they've ever had their work stolen, and you may be surprised at how common it is. Personally, I’ve had to contact an ex-employer when they egregiously removed my byline from many articles I’d written for their company blog after I left for another job. My story has a happy ending; I was able to get my bylines restored, but only because I was able to present screenshots of the offenses and compare them to the Wayback Machine where my original, correct bylines were shown. The take-home? Compile as much evidence as you can, just in case.
3Contact The Offending Party
If you feel more comfortable using a lawyer familiar with IP theft before contacting the offending party, skip the next step. But in my case, all it took was letting the offender know that I was aware of the issue and planned to pursue the matter for them to remove the stolen material.
My advice is to keep your communication short, concise, and avoid any emotional outbursts that could be used against you later. Save all correspondence for proof that you’ve fulfilled your due diligence, since it can help you build a case if you have to enlist the help of a legal expert.
4If Needed, Call A Lawyer
If any of this advice doesn't sound like the right fit for your case, you should reach out to a lawyer with experience handling intellectual property theft. For a strong case of copyright infringement that’s resulted in damages or loss of income that hasn’t been resolved by contacting the offending party, you may want to consider sending an official cease-and-desist.
For small businesses and artists, the cost of hiring a legal expert may not back out, but hopefully the more people who shed light on this toxic corporate behavior, the more companies who profit from stealing will be held accountable.