Content Theft ~ It Matters to Me


Writing has brought innumerable changes to my life. In addition to the need for solving quite concrete and practical problems, like finding enough time in a day to write, I’ve been forced to confront issues which, quite frankly, didn’t concern me even a year ago.

One of those issues is content theft, known more formally as copyright infringement. Across the web, musicians, photographers, writers and artists of every sort have been forced into a kind of guerilla warfare with folks determined to take and use what is not theirs. Some people do it casually and without thought, not intending to offend. But now and then I find comments which indicate other attitudes underlying the actions. “If they put it on the web, it’s fair game”, commented one blogger.  “I figure they’ll never find out,” said another. And recently, I read that “it doesn’t make any difference” who authored a particular piece of work. Having just written and posted what is my favorite, and perhaps best poem, Watching Comet Lulin, I’m afraid I took that rather personally.

To say it makes no difference who wrote something is to say that, when someone comes along and steals my work, I should smile and say, “Well, it’s my vision.  I struggled to put it into words, and took the time to copyright it and claim ownership of it, but that’s ok. If you want to put your name on it and pass it off as yours, I’ll just sit back and let you do it”.

As you might assume, that isn’t going to happen. Intellectual property is intellectual property, and copyright law is binding, and the entire reason for things like the Digital Millenium Copyright Act is to protect artists and writers who deserve the rights to their work.

I’ve had my work stolen, and it’s not a good experience. The first time it happened, I was stunned, barely able to breathe when I saw someone else’s name on my essay. Now, about two dozen thefts down the road, it isn’t any easier. The difference is that now I know what to do, and I do it.

I’ve spent a good bit of time chasing down characters from Oslo to Rome to Kiev who have lifted my material off the web and used it as fodder for making money, and you can bet that the servers who host them and their advertisers cooperate in hunting them down. Here are two examples from one site, where the geniuses involved put two names on the same post, Derelict Boats, Derelict Hearts.

There are few things in life I’m sure of, but I’m quite certain I am neither “Greg Wilson” nor “Allen”. In this particular case, getting the offending material off the web was relatively easy. Performing a WHOIS search, I discovered the site was hosted by They provide an “abuse” link at their site where the procedures for reporting a variety of offenses is clearly outlined.

I sent them an email that contained the offending URLs and proof of my ownership a link to my original post and my information from My Free Copyright, an electonic “fingerprinting” service that identifies and archives each of my new posts within hours of it going up on the web. The My Free Copyright information for Derelict Boats, Derelict Hearts looks like this (with identifying information removed, of course):

Copyright :: All Rights Reserved
Registered :: Sun Feb 15 03:35:50 UTC 2009
Title :: Derelict Boats, Derelict Hearts
Description :: As Galveston dons the purple, green and gold of Mardi Gras and South Padre Island waits for the youthful, languorous stretch of Spring Break, Port O’Connor cleans its rods, repairs its reels and waits for the spring flounder run to begin. Port
Category :: Blog
Fingerprint :: xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
MCN :: xxxxx-xxxxx-xxxxxx

Once you locate the offender’s host and provide evidence of your rightful ownership, those sites come down, and in my experience, tbey come down fast. Neither web hosts nor advertisers seem eager to be held liable in copyright infringement cases. If you’re surfing the web and find a link taking you to a page that says “This site not available. If you are the owner, contract the site administrator”, it may be that someone didn’t pay their bill or posted forbidden content. However, it’s just as likely they were caught engaging in copyright infringement.

Freehostia responded to my complaint within a day. When “Allen” or “Greg Wilson” showed up at their site, this is what they found.

 The Terms of Service at WordPress are quite clear: By making Content available, you represent and warrant that the downloading, copying and use of the Content will not infringe the proprietary rights, including but not limited to the copyright, patent, trademark or trade secret rights, of any third party;

At Weather Underground, where I maintain a second blog, there is the same caveat in the TOS: (The user will not) Upload, post, email, transmit, link to or otherwise make available any information on the Site that infringes any intellectual property rights or other proprietary rights of others.

WordPress itself is filled with links to helpful hints for discovering and dealing with content theft. Experienced bloggers such as timethief and Lorelle maintain sites that provide easy access to information, and such groups as the Electronic Frontier Foundation provide a roadmap for exploring legal issues.

In the end, on the world-wide web as in the world, it does make a difference “who wrote it”. It especially makes a difference to artists of every sort who work for hours (days, weeks, years) to craft something meant to stir people’s spirits and souls. An artist should have the right to share his or her creation without fearing that someone else will claim it as their own.

The all-too-common attitude that whatever is posted on the web is free for the taking is simply wrong. Unless the artist makes clear, through a Creative Commons license or other means, that the work can be shared in particular ways, all rights remain with the photographer, writer, musician or artist. All of us need to respect that and be responsible in our use of images, photographs, graphics and text.

It’s the ethical thing to do.


Comments are welcome.  To leave a comment or respond, please click below.

19 thoughts on “Content Theft ~ It Matters to Me

  1. I think you are absolutely right. You have also terrified me, as in “oh, boy, what am I guilty of?”

    As a beginner I try to be careful and cite what I quote as accurately as possible, as well as give credit when others (you, for instance) have offered help or suggestions or inspired something. Or if I participate in something hosted by someone else, or…you get the idea. I’m sure I’ve made mistakes; I hope they haven’t been fatal. In the blogosphere as in every other aspect of life, taking care matters.
    An eye-opening post. Thank you.

    Hi, ds,

    I can pretty much guarantee the cyber-police won’t be camped on your doorstep anytime soon! I’ve read your blog consistently, and you obviously are one who “takes care”. Besides, mistakes are one thing, and theft another. Especially with photographs and images, a lot of folks just don’t realize how important it is to sort out what’s freely available and what isn’t. And some people know darned well they’re stealing, but they do it anyway.

    I’m still learning, myself. Just last night I learned about the registration process available through the Writers Guild of America. I didn’t have a clue it existed, but now I have another way to protect my “special” babies!

    One of the great truths of our day may be that an immense gulf exists between those who see words as a commodity, something to fill up a page so they can surround it with money-making ads, and those who see the blogging platforms as a way to share their words with the world. In any event – I’ll be as careful as I can be with others’ work, and hope I get some consideration in return.

    Thanks so much for stopping by, and don’t worry about any mistakes you’ve made. You’re not the problem, here!


  2. Thank you very much for posting on this topic. I’m glad that you’ve been able to get some resolution on your instances and it seems to me that you have a pretty good system down.

    Still, if there is ever a case that you need any help with, feel free to write me and let me know. I’m happy to help.

    Best of luck with your struggles!


    I spent some time reading your story and looking through your site last night – very interesting. One thing I’ve discovered is the seemingly impenetrable maze of requirements and regulations and processes for untangling some of these messes really are not so bad. Like so many things in life, a little patience and a “one-step-at-a-tkme” approach can make the process understandable and less onerous.

    You certainly are in my files now, for regular reading if nothing else. Appreciate the visit and the encouraging words.


  3. I’m curious how you tracked down those who had stolen your writing. And what prompted you to do it? Is it something you do regularly? I suppose once you’ve experienced it, that would be a natural thing to do. I wonder how you found out the first time someone stole your writing?

    Hi, Ruth,

    I had no problem the first six months of my blog. Obviously, none of these good folk are interested in content from a blog getting 50 visits a day. But, as my readership developed and visits increased substantially, they were all over it. I’m still not clear on how THEY find me, but I’ll figure that out eventually.

    I became aware of the situation when I received an incoming link on my stats page. I looked at the title and thought, “That’s the same title as my essay”. Well, it was my essay. Word for word. Then, I began finding spam in my comments file – paragraphs from my work, with a link back to the original piece. If those gave attribution, they usually were from sites that had contact information on the page. I’d drop a note asking for the piece to be removed, and it always was. I had only a few entries taken whole, and it’s been relatively rare for someone to put another name to the work, but when it happens I usually start with the web host, and that’s been enough to resolve the issue – so far.

    I do have some little tricks I use now. I do as much cross-linking as I can, embedding the title of another one of my blogs into the body of a new blog’s text. If that link shows up as a trackback, I go looking. I keep a close eye on comment spam, and use Google alerts and Copyscape. Once, I entered the URL of a post into Copyscape’s system and got seven results returned to me – every one of them a travel site that had made use of my post. I just make it a practice to spend 15 minutes a day fishing around to see what’s happening.

    If I were working on a book I hoped to publish, a short story or a substantial article, I’d never put it online. I’m a little more nervous now even about essays and poetry since I’ve done some paper-and-ink publishing, but I got a real giggle this weekend when I searched for my poetry every which way. No one has made a move on that! One of these days, for fun, I may write a poem about fishing in the Bahamas while watching beautiful tourists frolic on the beaches. I’ll bet I’d find that poem on a travel site!


  4. Linda,

    Very well said and written.

    You have got me wondering though what have I started. I was just trying to issue an alert on WU about the security issue of P2P programs. The copyright issue was secondary, but I seem to have touched a sensitive area in people on both sides of the issue. I never knew that some of my friends who write have had to deal with this problem. Usually what I’ve been made aware of is pirate theft of music and movies which I have been becoming more and more aware of.

    I used to think that this wasn’t as big as deal as some people were making it out to be, but since my conversation with people at the RIAA, I’ve been seeing more appearances of material available for free or for sale on the internet. Ebay is one of the areas that is ripe with pirated software, music, and movies. Another location is Craigs List. I recently heard on the news that someone in Minnesota who had the door stolen off of his Bobcat Earth Mover found the door for sale on Craigs list. So this kind of theft is becoming more rampant and is not limited to copyrighted or patented intellectual property.



    Actually, your recent post about security and copyright was an addition to a discussion that’s been ongoing for far longer than I’ve been aware of it. Copyright issues always have existed. The arrival of the world wide web simply exacerbated them.

    A photographer I was talking with recently suggested a connection between the downloading of music and content theft. Even when people are downloading their music quite legally, the ease of the process, and the naturalness with which they do it may lead to the same practice with images and photos. It’s an interesting thought.

    Thanks so much for your comment, and your contribution to the ongoing discussion!


  5. Regarding photography, I have seen a number of sites that sell peoples photographs for them. They have the sites set up so well that you have to pay for the photograph if you want anything more than a digital copy with the words COPYRIGHT water marked in the image. I think that they have a pretty good handle on copyright protection. The problem is for those of us who put up our stuff and free sites that don’t have that level of security. It’s kind of the old, you get what you pay for, scenario. But the problem is that most of us can’t afford the cost of good security and still keep our stuff out where the general public can see it. Many people are not willing to pay a fee to view this stuff. I don’t have any answers and people that I’ve talked to in the security world say that it’s a real problem.

    Also attitudes over that last 50 years seem to have changed, especially since the late 60’s and 70’s, where many, if not most, people don’t thing that taking something with out permission is stealing. Of course I’ve also noticed that the copyright and patent laws have been undergoing changes. Items that used to pass over into the general common use area are now being re-registered and protected under the new copyright and patent laws which has been causing confusion for many people as to what is protected and what is not. Classic example is the Vines Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. The author has long since passed on and the copyright had expired on this book. But somehow the publisher managed to get a new copyright issued on the book in their name. I don’t quite understand how that works. I could see it if someone in the family was named in the copyright, but that’s not the case here. It’s very confusing to me.

    The other thing is how do you know what photographs are public domain and which ones are not, if it’s not clearly stated. With the music and movie industry this isn’t a problem as the copyright is clearly stated on each one. I wish someone would clarify and laws on these issues. Another example that I’ve run across is with computer software. There is a lot of software that some one is claiming a copyright on that the Federal Government says is not legal to copyright. I understand that they are still fighting that one out in court. Obviously the only safe thing to do is error on the side of caution. Most people that I’ve talked to are not willing to do that as they claim that their rights are being stepped on.


    Your comment points directly to another problem I just became aware of. I’ve purchased from iStockphoto in the past, assuming that to be one way to avoid giving offense. Now, a photographer has pointed out to me that, with the demand for photographs and images so high, there are people passing stolen work TO sites like iStock. While neither the company nor the end user may realize they are dealing with a stolen image, it can happen. How you would sort that one out, I’m not sure. I imagine all of these sites have liability-limiting language in the fine print I never read when I click “I agree to these terms”.

    But your larger point is well taken – in every arena, changes in technology and the law have gone hand in hand with changes in how we communicate online, and it’s a terrifically confusing situation.

    Thanks for raising so many good questions~!


  6. Linda, Gittem! Ken


    What a giggle! And how nice to “see” you. I’ve been spending time down on B dock and was talking with Jake about you today. He sends his regards.

    And, to the best of my ability, I’m going to “Gittem”. I hope I can help some others figure out the process, too.


  7. I haven’t dealt with this personally, but I know of many who have struggled with it in regards to art. People put it up on myspace or personal websites, not just because its pretty (though its wrong, I can overlook that, and attribute it to ignorance) but to blatantly claim it as their own. “Look at this awesome drawing I did!” Terrifies me. While with writing you can at least paste text into a search engine, I really don’t know how one would go about checking to see if their artwork was being used improperly. I don’t understand how people can do such things without at least a twinge of guilt.


    I’ve been hearing the same concerns from photographers. The increasing numbers of images on the web make the problem seemingly intractable. I did hear that there is a form of image search in beta testing – what a blessing that would be.

    How can people do such things? I’m sure ignorance plays a role. When I first came to the web and began posting on another site, I know I used images from online searches without a thought. It simply never occurred to me that copyright issues were involved. Eventually, I figured that out and became much more attentive, either providing attribution and links, asking permission, purchasing from stock photo sites or using my own photos.

    But I do wonder if the same anonymity and sense of working in an “unreal world” when on the web doesn’t play into it, as well. Some people seem to think when you turn on the computer, the same rules don’t apply. The rules may be different in some ways, but there still are rules.

    Thank you so much for reading, and contributing to the discussion.


  8. It is true that from the moment of creation an original work has copyright protection. However, without formal registration with the copyright office you are not entitled to recover attorney fees or the full range of statutory damages in case of infringement.

    As a photographer it is impractical to register every photo I make. However, I do make specific group registrations. This can be done for a single fee of $35 if done online, or slightly more if the images are submitted on CD. However, these must be of unpublished images. Previously published images can be group registered but there are certain restrictions and it is more time consuming.

    In any case it remains the responsibility of the photographer (writer) to discover and report the infringement of his or her work and take action.

    I was quite interested in your recommendation of the “My Free Copyright” service. However, when I visited their site I could not find information about who the principals are or where the service is actually located. Likewise I found nothing that explained why they offer the service. It must take a considerable investment on their part, and it’s hard to imagine they do it for free. How do they make a profit? Maybe I’m too suspicious. Do you know where I could find the answers?


    When I began blogging ten months ago, I added My Free Copyright and Copyscape to my site solely on the recommendation of other bloggers. I paid no attention to them until the past two months, when I’ve really made use of them – quite successfully.

    I’d never thought of the questions you asked, and went snooping. I couldn’t find much. I did find this, from a posting on deviantArt:

    “Website provides a verifiable historical public record asserting your copyright to works you create.

    MyFreeCopyright creates an electronic fingerprint of your image, audio, or written creation and emails you that signature, thereby providing both a unique key to identify the work and a time-stamp to verify the date of creation should you ever need to defend your work.

    Submitting your work to provides a similar proof of authorship (in that the date of publication is recorded by a third party), but has the benefit of allowing anyone to submit a copy of the image without knowing who you are, and the site will match the signature with the copyright owner. (Caveat: Only unedited works will actually match. You will need the original file to defend your creations.)

    The first 100 works you submit are free; additional images may be registered as part of their annual subscription service, as are additional features related to archiving copies of your work. (features/pricing) Subscription prices are about the same level as a deviantArt subscription account, and certainly worth considering as an alternative to more expensive watermarking services like Digimarc’s MyPictureMarc.”

    So, that helps to answer the question about the free service. The subscription services surely are their bread and butter, and like the paid enhancements available through Copyscape, they help to subsidize the freebies.

    In discussions of the issue on another site, I learned for the first time about the Writers Guild of America and their registration service.
    Like a registered copyright, it’s something I surely will begin to consider, particularly for any work particularly dear to me.

    And another reader provided this link, which is a terrific overview of the whole arena of copyright, publishing and internet law.

    Thanks so much for the information you added to the discussion, and your questions!


  9. Linda, this blog post of yours is invaluable.

    I live and teach in Almaty, Kazakhstan and as a writing teacher have to deal with the plagiarism issue ALL the time. I put up my own thoughts and photos and now am going to be more wary of who is taking my stuff down and perhaps claiming it as their own. My motivation is to inform people about the GREAT country of Kazakhstan through my students’ stories. I have them fill out a consent form and if it were ever to get into a book, I would have that to prove my obtaining the permission of my students. However, I think I should be a bit more circumspect with what I put out there that might be translated and used for someone else’s benefit. Food for thought.

    I appreciate your writing!!!



    Thank you so much for stopping by, and for your kind comments. I’m truly glad you’ve found the post useful. It surely is a world-wide issue now, and it’s easy to forget that, even though we talk so easily of the world-wide web.

    One link that was given to me as part of this discussion was especially helpful. You can find it here. Best wishes to you and continued success in your work.


  10. Hi there Linda,

    My son found out a lot about copyrights related to publishing and the so called “In the public domain” issue. Turns out a good publisher will not print any thing that is not clearly backed up with documentation to show that what you use from other sources is definitely in the public domain or you have permission to use it. It took my son almost as long to get all these permissions and proof as it took him to write the book. I fully understand the issues of protecting ones rights, but after what my son went through, I have to wonder if some of it is being carried to such extreme so as to inhibit the spirit to generate new material. It would appear that things have gotten so tight now, that if you want to use any examples or illustrations, you almost have to generate them all yourself. I’m seeing similar issues in the patent laws and seeing patents being over turned in court and awarded to someone else. I don’t understand all that is going on these days. And I’m starting to wonder if some of the changes that are taking place are doing more harm than good.

    There is software that can put a hidden imprint in digital photos, but if that photo is altered with photo editing software, the imprint can be altered or destroyed. The only way that I’ve seem to protect a digital photo is to put a big visible copyright watermark across the whole picture. This make it almost impossible to remove the watermark from the photo, but also degrades the photo enough to turn off potential buyers. Also there is software that can scan and compare two photos to see if they are identical. The problem with that is the amount of data in a digital photo is many times greater than a worded document. I think the best idea with photos is to put a low resolution copy of the digital photo you are putting up for sale. Then if the person steals that, they are not getting away with as much. And if they try to sell it, there will be far less buyers interested. Also if the people dealing with these for buying make a test of the photo resolution, they should be able to spot the knock off pretty fast. Just an idea.


    You’re not the only one who doesn’t understand all that is going on these days. It’s a big world, and there’s a lot of uncharted territory out there. As I mentioned to someone else, if we’re going out on the ocean, we need to learn to navigate.

    I was caught by your comment about posting low-resolution photos. I’ve heard stories from photographers who were generous in making high-resolution photos available to others, only to find them published elsewhere. There can be great joy in sharing one’s art, but a good dose of common sense and caution never hurts!


  11. I read this entry earlier and overall I agree with you. You don’t steal other’s work. But I read an interesting article in the papers the other day. It was about when it became stealing.

    Before printing, if you wanted a copy of a book you paid someone to write you a copy. When printing and mass-production came you still paid for the work to produce the copy, not for the content. The writer made a name by spreading the writings, he/she didn’t pay the bills with it. Somewhere during the line, you started to pay for the content. Was it when the Xerox arrived? It became a threat to the income of the publishers?

    Now, this is not about putting your name on someone else’s essay – that is more than just stealing, it’s fraud. But never the less, it is interesting to consider the history behind making a copy.


    You’re exactly right about the importance of copying prior to the introduction of the printing press. Some of the most beautiful art treasures we have, like the Books of Hours are heartbreakingly beautiful. I had a calendar featuring illustrations from a Book of Hours I was given at Christmas. I kept it for years, simply to enjoy the artwork.

    Another important thing to remember is that in the days of hand-copying, absolute accuracy was critical. The copyist wasn’t supposed to vary even a single word, but transmit the information unchanged. The same holds true in oral traditions. Creativity and embroidering the story line aren’t as important as telling the story “the way it’s supposed to be”.

    I’ve never thought about this, but it’s clear that “plagiarism” wouldn’t be a crime in a society where accuracy and communal transmission were the highest values, rather than creativity and individualism. This is such an interesting thought – thank you for raising the issue!


  12. Thanks Linda, This is all very helpful.

    There is also the issue of off-line publishing; say someone steals your work and publishes it in a book or magazine. You can’t track that by point and click. But I guess one still has a means of verifying ownership through these online agencies you mention.

  13. Reminds me of the time a colleague of mine was interviewing a job applicant who presented an example of his ‘claimed’ work, which was in fact authored by the interviewer. Needless to say, he was not hired.

    1. Rick,

      What a priceless story, and the very definition of instant karma. Of course we all draw inspiration from the work of others, and are influenced by the “masters” in one way or another, but my goodness! Passing off someone else’s work as one’s own just isn’t very smart.


    1. Z,

      I’m a little more relaxed about it than I used to be. As I mentioned, the good rule of thumb is if you really don’t want your content stolen, don’t put it on the net. I’ve had to come to terms with some of that – although I’ve also had people suggest that by not publicizing on FB, etc, my exposure to such things goes down.

      It’s an interesting phenomenon, for sure!


    1. Z,

      Yes, and since this post was written, all of the complexities of Tumblr, Pinterest and reblogging have emerged. Even though I added a comment about reblogging at your place, I’m going to add it here, too, as a sort of update and addendum that takes note of new developments in an old war.

      I suppose I sound unbearably grinchy and crotchety, but just as you spend time getting to know your animals, for example, in order to get those fabulous photos, I spend time stalking the odd idea. Our effort, and our creativity, deserves to be shared – but we also deserve the courtesy of determining how that happens.


      A note on ReBlogging:

      “I’ve also found many of my images on Pinterest. Since I use them only as illustrations for my written work, Pinterest is a secondary battle for me, and one I’ve consciously chosen not to fight.

      My concern is the integrity of my writing, and, in my opinion, the practice of re-blogging encourages content theft. When someone reblogs one of my posts, I treat it in precisely the same way as if they’d right-clicked an image or copied my blog.

      As far as I’m concerned, anyone who allows reblogging to go on with their words or images is giving a tacit word of permission for other kinds of content theft. Using the word “reblog” doesn’t change the reality of what’s happening – someone is using my material without my permission. Using a nice word like “reblog” doesn’t change the reality, any more than talk about “curating” material changes the fact that many of those images popping up on Tumblr and Pinterest are stolen.

      One problem with reblogging is that, while the source is connected to the first reblog, it’s stripped out after that. Beyond that, I simply do not want my material published on another site. Period.

      If I get a notice that someone has reblogged my material, I never, ever post that trackback “reblog notice” on my blog. I go directly to the person who has done it and tell them to take it down. I explain that while WordPress may think it’s hunky-dory, I don’t. You’d be surprised how many people are shocked – they assume that since WordPress allows it, it must be just fine.

      People will say, “Oh, it’s so nice – someone liked your stuff so much they wanted to share it.” Perhaps. More often, I’ve found it’s that someone is so lazy they’d rather post someone else’s material. There are entire blogs filled with nothing but reblogs. There’s a way to share without reblogging – it’s called linking.

      It’s interesting – I’m seeing more and more people who are serious about maintaining the integrity of their content placing very clear “Do Not ReBlog” notices in a prominent place on their blogs. I certainly have.”

      1. Thank you; it’s good to place an update on your post as well, and hopefully it will help others get off of their lazy ___ and write their own material! I enjoy the creative challenge of coming up with images if I really don’t have any that would work. A new post is incubating that has an eclectic mix, including more of the museum artifacts that have personality.

        I hope that the week is good to you! Thanks again!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.