If it’s on the internet, it must be free. That statement isn’t true, but lots of people believe it. How else can we explain the way entire blog posts are copied and pasted, pros’ photos are reproduced without permission or payment and entire website designs are blatantly nicked? The good news is that in many cases the offenders are clueless, not criminal. The bad news? Enforcing your rights can be a hassle.

Why people steal your stuff

You know about copyright – it’s your business – but most people don’t, and as a result people who take your content don’t necessarily realise that they’re doing anything wrong. It’s a bit like music downloading: many people who happily download entire albums via Bittorrent wouldn’t dream of shoplifting a CD, because the latter is a crime.

November’s outcry over the Cooks’ Source magazine – in short, a US magazine refused to pay a writer whose work it had copied on the grounds that “the web is considered public domain and you should be happy we didn’t just lift your entire article and put someone’s name on it!” – was fairly typical: the copying was done in the mistaken belief that if it’s online, it’s in the public domain.

Not all content thieves are clueless, of course. Blog posts and online articles are routinely lifted and used to populate advertising-stuffed websites who hope to make money from other people’s efforts, and photos and even entire website designs are stolen by people who know it’s wrong but also know they’ll probably get away with it.

That’s not just bad news because your stuff is being stolen. It’s bad because Google doesn’t like duplicates and may penalise your site accordingly, and it’s bad because it’s sometimes perpetrated by rather worrying organisations. Heather Burns of Idea15 Web Design discovered that her site was being plagiarised by “white label fronts for third-world labour.” As she points out, “being mindful of plagiarism protects your own business from unscrupulous competitors.”

So how do you stop it?

What you can do when someone steals your content

Struan Robertson is legal director of Pinsent Masons LLP and editor of Out-Law.com. “It’s not easy to deal with this sort of theft,” he says. “Your reaction will depend on the circumstances. If it’s possible that the copying was an ignorant mistake – perhaps because the person thought it was okay to copy an image from your site – a polite email could be enough to resolve the matter.

At the other end of the scale, if someone has made a duplicate of your site and it looks like a phishing endeavour, that’s a matter you should take straight to the police. They might ask you to contact the host if you can (whoishostingthis.com is handy for tracing a host) or they might wish to do that themselves.”

If you’re convinced that the infringer knows exactly what he or she is doing, it’s time for a tougher approach: demanding that the infringer stops using your content immediately and won’t use it again. ” If you can calculate a loss as a consequence of the theft, claim that too,” Robertson recommends. “That’s sometimes difficult to do, but if the content is your livelihood – e.g. if you’re a photographer – it will be easier to show your market rate for use of your images.”

Still no luck? Then it’s time to talk to the offender’s web host. “In Europe and the US, if you put a business on notice that it is hosting copyright-infringing content, it has a general duty to take that content down or become liable as infringer,” Robertson says.

If the site is in the US, you can issue a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notice, which is designed to fight instances of copyright infringement. If they’re in the UK, the DMCA doesn’t apply but many ISPs do offer simple notice and takedown procedures, so for example ClaraNet has a form for reporting copyright infringement here.

If the site owner isn’t responding to emails, you may need to notify his or her ISP.

You can also ask Google to de-list the offender’s website. As a US firm Google operates under the DCMA, so you can file a DCMA request asking it to remove links to your content. You can only do this if you’re the copyright owner. You’ll find full details of Google’s procedure here.

No more Mister Nice Guy

Sometimes your polite emails are ignored and the offender’s host clearly doesn’t care. Time for legal action? Perhaps. “For many businesses, particularly where the infringer is overseas, the cost of legal action will be prohibitive,” Robertson points out. “Even if you can trace the infringer and succeed in court, the cost of enforcing an order overseas can be huge.

It only makes sense to take action if the cost can be justified financially. That depends in part on the depth of your pockets, and in part on the value of the stolen IP to your business. That means in some cases, writing off the loss will be the only pragmatic thing to do.”

If all else fails, there’s social media. Naming and shaming the offender on blogs, on Twitter or on Facebook may well embarrass them, but be aware that you could be playing with fire: the Cooks’ Source plagiarism we mentioned at the beginning of this article generated a social media storm that quickly snowballed, and at the time of writing the offending editor appears to have been driven out of business altogether.

How you can prevent it happening again

There are several things you can do to prevent people from stealing your content. Photographers have long watermarked their images to prevent unauthorised re-use, but with website copy you can do something similar: if you include some distinctive phrases you can easily Google to see if someone’s ripping you off.

A more sophisticated approach is to use a service such as CopySentry, which starts at $4.95 per month. The service scans your site and then searches for copies of your copy, emailing when it thinks it’s found something. “You then click on the link provided and CopySentry highlights the exact text plagiarised from the original,” Burns says. “You then use their contact information to send them a cease and desist… does it work? I have never had a plagiarist keep their text up for more than 18 hours after getting my email.”

Services such as CopyScape’s CopySentry can monitor the web for copies of your website text.

For Burns such plagiarism is an annoyance – “This is just my own business website’s sales text,” she says, “so it only damages my business in an emotional sense” – but if words are your living, it could let you know if others are trying to profit from your hard work. “For a professional writer or blogger these alerts might inform them that their piece has been published in an overseas magazine under another author’s name,” Burns points out. “It does happen.” Just ask Cooks’ Source.

With images, code and media files, blocking the worst offenders can be worthwhile. The Webdistortion blog has ASP and PHP code that blocks the most common site scrapers, software programs designed to download sites’ entire content.

If the content thieves are dumb enough to hotlink – that is, using your images, JavaScript or CSS files by linking directly to the files on your server – then a few quick changes to a folder’s .htaccess file can prevent that. We think that’s a more professional approach than the – admittedly more satisfying – revenge tactic of replacing hotlinked images with something appalling.