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Month: August 2017

How to Protect Yourself When Writing Stories Online

So now let’s talk about what you can do to protect yourselves when posting your stories online.

First, a key distinction (and I only make this again because in conversations, some keep trying to sidetrack the conversation and wrongly conflate the terms). All authors have to deal with piracy at some point. Piracy is where they take your story with your name attached and upload it to a site. It may be a mirror site, it may be a separate site. They tend to target well-known authors because that draws the readers to their site.

Plagiarism and theft is when they take your words and your story and take your name off. They may change some small details, but the vast majority of the story is the same. These individuals typically focus on unknown and smaller authors because it’s more likely that they can get away with it.

Authors never benefit from having their works plagiarized. There may be some who will argue that piracy is not much of a detriment to authors. But the reason that it is difference is because the author’s name remains on the manuscript. They can still potentially gain new fans. It is not a great argument as authors should maintain control of the manner and method of their distribution. In fact, it is deeply flawed. But victims of plagiarism/theft do not receive even this.

Understand What Most Thieves Want

For the most part, thieves want an easy buck. They are not the same as pirates. Pirates typically make their revenue through ads and phishing schemes and viruses on the sites. Thieves/plagiarists typically make their money off the royalties. Because this is hit or miss, they are inclined to do a lot all at once.

In most of my dealings with thieves, they grab multiple stories and do mass uploads or they stuff a single book with stolen items to maximize per page revenue payments. Generally the stories bring in small amounts that then accumulate over time. These thieves are not in it for the big money. Most don’t want to be noticed. It’s about accumulation. (Also in my dealings, most of these thieves are in countries where a US dollar will go a lot farther.)

Determine if You Can Risk Theft

When you post online, you run the risk that someone may steal it. I do not say this to absolve any of the writing platforms from their duty to their writers. It is simply something to bear in mind. Do not buy into any of the promises that they give you that they are different or that they will protect you. And even the best security may not keep out some thieves. (I do expect a good platform to keep it from being as easy as the click of a button, but I won’t move into that rant right now.)

If your project is such that you can absolutely not risk it being stolen, don’t put it online. (And let me be clear that there is nothing wrong with that. It doesn’t mean that you are cowardly or somehow stuck in the dark ages. It is recognizing the nature of each writing project, and what works for one may not work for another.)

You need to make sure that you take time to search for your stories and check to see if you have been robbed. Or you need to not care if someone takes your story without giving you attribution.

Don’t Post the Full Story in One Place

Remember that most thieves want a quick and easy buck. So if a story is explicitly declared as not finished, it is less likely to be targeted. (Please note that by finishing, I don’t mean editing. I mean it literally does not have an ending. Thieves don’t seem to care much about grammar.)

The other benefit to not posting the full story is that if someone steals it up and uploads it, the ending will be missing. You will have the ending. That may not be prima facie evidence, but it is quite solid, nearing Big Eyes territory.

Now again, this is not foolproof. Some intrepid thieves may be willing to add an ending. In the Rachel Nunes case, the thief added some sex scenes.

So what about your readers? What if they want the ending and you want to share it with them?

Well, you’ve got a couple options here.

First, if you do choose to not post a full story, make sure to note this at the beginning, particularly if you are on a site like Tablo or Inkitt or Wattpad where serials are common. This way you can temper your readers’ expectations. You could choose to not publish the ending at all until formal publication. Readers can then purchase your story. But please give your readers notice. They want to support you, and they need to be fully informed as well.

You can also time out your upload of the chapters to coincide with the release of your book. This way the final chapters go up online after the book is formally published and registered with the copyright.

If you don’t care for either of those options or perhaps don’t want to pursue formal publication, the other option is to upload the final chapters elsewhere. Say in a different book or on a different profile or on a different platform altogether. Now, please note that this is not much of a protection. It relies essentially on the speed and ease with which thieves want to take your story. It throws up a roadblock. If they do some research and find it, it is simple enough to join the files together.

Register the Copyright

Now personally I don’t recommend doing this before the work is done or filing for preregistration (also there are some other restrictions for preregistration.) However, it is your call, and you will need to consider your situation and possibly talk to an attorney. (Yes, I am an attorney, but I am not giving specific advice here.)

Also please note that I will be doing a followup post on how to do an Unpublished Collection through the Copyright Office, but that will take a little more research to confirm some details.

If your country allows for this like the US, it’s just a much simpler way to prove ownership. In the US, it costs about $30 – $40 ($35 for me the last time I paid). And it is relatively simple to go through.

Also foreigners can register their copyright in the US. You can check out what the Copyright Office has to say on this and limitations. But for my readers who have asked most about UK residents specifically, yes, you can register with the US Copyright Office.

To register in the United States, you can go through here.

Note that their completion times vary significantly, but if you do everything properly, the date of copyright is the date that the application is received in full.

Officially Publish Before Posting

Now, let’s get something straight…officially publishing does not mean you are golden in terms of copyright registration. Most traditional publishers, including small, will register your copyright for you. If you are indie, you will need to register your copyright (and I do encourage this even though copyright belongs to you once you create; copyright registration opens additional options and creates prima facie evidence). But even if all you have is the finished book, it is a little more persuasive than a time stamped web page if it comes first in time because you also have sales and release data, usually from more than one site, which leads to the next point.

When you publish, go wide. Again time stamps and dates like this are not foolproof or guaranteed, but they help to build a stronger case. It also makes it more likely that your story will be seen and known.

Utilize a Copyright Registration/Index Service

Copyright registration services are something of a misnomer in that they are not exactly copyright registration unless they are affiliated with the government (and even then depending on your country, you’ve got to doublecheck). It’s actually more accurate to refer to these as indexes, which is what some call themselves. (It depends on your country what the most common terminology is, but an official service will have a .gov ending.)

Essentially for a fee you submit your work to them, and they receive it, date it, and secure it. They can then be used as a business record of note and provide data. It is harder to fake this, and so it is generally more persuasive than a website time stamp as those can be easily faked.

Now bear in mind that some of these may be more expensive than the actual copyright registration service. It also does not create prima facie evidence. But it is not worthless.

Full disclosure though, I have never used one of these services.

Be Precise, Unique, Connected, and Descriptive

In looking over books that have been stolen and uploaded under another author’s name, I have noticed that stories that are more generic tend to be more common targets. To date, most of the targets I have spoken with wrote romance, contemporary, or thrillers. I suspect that this is because the settings tend to be more generic and the general arena quite heavily populated, making it easy for them to blend in.

So add in unusual descriptions and features that are often present in your other stories. In other words, develop a vivid voice, which is great for your writing anyway.

Now this is not always the case. In the case of my Tundra Queen, it was a high fantasy science fiction story with a lot of elements that, even if the thief had changed the names (she did not), it would have been easy enough to prove my ownership. I also failed to note that the story was part of a larger series (another factor, other than the copyright that worked in my defense).

Standalones also seem more likely to be targeted. In most of the cases I’ve dealt with, the story stolen is on its lonesome. Not part of an interconnected world. I would recommend prominently advertising that it is part of an interconnected world if it is (and that will also be good for your readers).

If you have parts of the interconnected world/series officially published, it makes it that much easier to prove that the other one is part of your catalogue and not the thieves. Particularly if you have registered the copyright or taken other steps to secure your property.

Regularly Check For Thieves/Plagiarists

You need to make it a regular part of your routine to check for your stories if it bothers you that someone might take them without giving attribution and you want to stop them.

Now admittedly, this is sometimes hard to do. Particularly when you have a lot of stories up. But take some time to set up Google Alerts. Also take the time to search paragraphs from your story. Personally I take certain key passages with descriptive language. I don’t focus as much on names because names are easily changed. Characters’ physical descriptions and setting descriptions as well as unique bits of dialogue are some of my favorites for this.

Go through Amazon and check for your titles. Bear in mind that the word search that works for most websites will not work on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Google Books, etc. You’ll want to check for title matches. It isn’t often that thieves are foolish enough to use the same title, but sometimes they do. Also check in keywords. Focus on elements that are not likely to be changed such as the character’s occupation, setting if it is essential and not easily changed, and the core conflict. One friend found her story on Barnes and Noble by searching for New Orleans nurse high school reunion romance.

Read in your genre. Most of the time, thieves publish their stolen goods in the same primary genre because that is what the story is set for and it is hard to change that much.

Prioritize checking for stand alones and books that are the first in their series and from time to time check the others.

Note: Have your author friends’ backs. If you see something suspicious, let them know. Don’t attack the person you think might be a thief. Your friend will know better if it is actual theft.

Make Your Story Tumblr Style

Tumblr, as you know, is not a text based site but rather employs images and blocks of color with text in them. Photographs of words are harder to scab. Now, people can still right click and save these, but it would take more effort to get the text into a publishable form.

If you really want to mess with thieves, then you can do a mixture of text and text on images. This is a little bit of a pain to do, and I am not inclined to do it myself. But who knows? If it gets much worse, I might give it a try.

If you need options for how to do it, you can either use a service like Canva to create images with the story. Or you could upload it to a story platform site, take a screenshot, and then upload it. Just make sure that if you do this that a single image does not hold the entirety of the story.

Do Not Leave Stories Up For an Indeterminate Amount of Time Without Protection

Now this is playing more against the law of averages and the odds of your work being stolen rather than actual protection. However, if you leave a story up without protection and don’t check up on it, the longer it is out there, the more you risk theft.

A thief just has to come by at the right time and the right place to rob you, but if you never lock your door, you make it easier.

Personally I like the solution of putting up stories for a brief time and then removing them. You may want to inform your readers that you will be doing this. The appropriate time frame varies based on how comfortable you feel.

It will also likely depend on what you have experienced. Right now I am more cautious because I have been targeted by thieves. I am on some of their radar (hopefully someone not to tangle with).

Stay Open to New Ideas And Know That What Works May Change

There are likely lots of other ways to inhibit thieves. We just have to come up with them. The image idea was one I got after a conversation with a site that allows people to download stories without the author’s permission. The developer mentioned that currently there was no way to download images along with stories but that wasn’t a problem because the images weren’t important. For me, that was a lightbulb moment.

Again all this might change. Tech and coding alike change regularly, which is why we rely on the experts to help protect us, and it is important to keep up with it as much as you can.

Remain Involved in the Writing Community

Some writing platforms will not let you know when the game changes and your work becomes vulnerable. Regardless of how much they claim to care about their users, their ultimate concern is to protect themselves. Do not believe otherwise.

With that said, being in touch with other writers is often your quickest route to knowing what’s going on even if the platform does let you know what is happening. It also goes back to the having one another’s back, and if someone sees your story stolen or if you see someone else’s stolen, you can pass that information on along.

Additionally, you can hopefully keep up with new techniques and new ideas to protect your work.

The Revenge Thief

Okay, there is one other type of thief that needs to be addressed here. This is the thief who is out to ruin you personally. This has nothing to do with the bottom line or business. It is personal. I have run into a few cases of this. This occurs when an individual is determined to target you and destroy your stories.

Now for the most part, this individual isn’t going to come out of the blue. They will harass you and do other things to make you as miserable as you can. Stealing your stories is only one aspect of that. In this case, you need to document everything and look into other charges that can be filed other than plagiarism. You’ll want to check into your state or nation’s laws if there is cyberharassment or intentional infliction of emotional distress or something similar that you can pursue. These may be easier causes of action to prove with greater available damages.

In this case, you will generally know who your thief is. You need to save everything and get legal counsel from someone who handles this sort of case as soon as you can. Evidence, particularly online evidence, can be difficult to obtain, so you will need professional counsel. Until then do not exacerbate the situation or make threats. Just collect the evidence and go get help.

Concluding Thoughts

Thieves are a reality of writing and publishing now, and there are no benefits to the authors. We have to be prepared.

When you post online, make sure you post informed. If you find your work stolen, take action. You don’t have to hide your work away. You just have to be vigilant.

What To Do When Your Story Is Plagiarized

Copyright may be yours from the moment you write a story, but that won’t keep some people from trying to steal it and pass it off as their own. While professional authors used to dismiss one’s risk of another’s work as being stolen as being the mark of a paranoid and delusional writer, theft of an authors’ works in many arenas is becoming increasingly common.

At this point in my career, I’ve dealt with multiple thefts. Thankfully, so far, they have been resolved fairly easily all things considered though they are frustrating and often time consuming. Now, in fairness, while it has become increasingly common for thieves to steal stories and upload them as their own, this is not a guarantee that this will happen to you. But it can, and you should be prepared for it.

So here are some things that you can do.

Some Parameters

Let’s define a few matters. In this article, I will be dealing with plagiarism of books and stories, not theft of Facebook posts or articles or blog posts. Not because these aren’t important or worthy of discussion but because they have different steps and issues that need to be addressed.

Also plagiarism is not the copying of ideas. It is the copying of an individual’s words. Some minor changes may be made including character names and the insertion of a few details or even scenes, but by and large the actual words chosen are the same. Idea theft is another matter altogether and actually much harder to prove with a lot more nuance.

For this article, we are going to talk about true plagiarism, not piracy. (The key distinction is that in piracy, your name will remain on the story and perhaps other attribution whereas in plagiarism, the plagiarist takes credit or gives no credit to anyone or to someone other than you.) Piracy is another conversation entirely and much harder to deal with.

As many will tell you, in the world of online theft, there are many shades and tragic paths which it follows. This is only one of them. This information is intended for general informational purposes and not as specific legal counsel for individual cases.

What Can You Do?

Get It Published and Formalize Your Copyright

First in time helps with your claim so one of the safest things you can do is publish the story and registering the copyright. If someone takes your work from a free to read site rather than a known book site, it can be harder to track and harder to stop. Plagiarizing thieves aren’t as likely to steal work already on Amazon for obvious reasons (though this does not mean that just because it is on Amazon it is entirely safe). If your work does appear on sites like Wattpad, Radish, Reddit, Fanfiction.net, Medium, Writing.com, and other locations, it is more likely to be seen as available and an easy target. The fact that you are not particularly well-known makes the theft all the easier. Speaking anecdotally I have seen far more situations occurring in small ways on these sites than I have on Amazon.

You can technically register your copyright before a story is officially completed, but because of the inevitable changes to the manuscript and cost of registration, I prefer to wait to register the final copy and then send two copies to the Library of Congress. Just make sure you haven’t signed an exclusivity agreement. (Also, you don’t need an attorney to help you file for this. It can be done on your own.)

Search Your Titles

Second, regularly searching for your titles and key sections from your stories can make a difference. In one of the more recent cases, I stumbled upon a stolen story because I was checking the title to make sure no other story in my genre had it. Lo and behold, there was my own story. The thief hadn’t even bothered to change the title or the cover.

Ask for Help

Third, ask your readers, friends and family members to keep an eye out for you, particularly if they read in your genre. Most of the accounts I hear involve random discoveries as readers go about their business. Let your readers know that if they find your book, they should let you know ASAP, whether on an official for sale site like Amazon or uploaded on another site without your permission. They shouldn’t engage or drown the individual in one star reviews or attacks until it’s confirmed that it is indeed your story (and even then over zeal can actual hurt your prospects rather than help).

Keep Anything That Helps Prove Your Ownership

Fourth, keep all proof of ownership even if it is not admissible in court. The poor man’s copyright and many other elements of proof aren’t something that you can use in court (and you should never rely on them for protection if you are in a US court; in a UK court, however, it seems there may be some value in the poor man’s copyright), but they can be useful in the pre litigation phase. So save them all. Save your copies. Save your conversations. Save everything within reason that indicates your ties and ownership to the story.

This can sometimes get a little bulky. If you need to, set up a separate file, get a flash drive, and dump it.

Search for Sections of Your Story

Fifth, regularly check key passages of your story through plagiarism checkers. There are more and more on the market. Copyscape was one of the best ones for me for quite awhile though it does cost a little bit (just a few cents a search). However, there are plenty of free versions out there. I have also used Google Alerts for key words and phrases, but that has been increasingly hit or miss. It doesn’t hurt to set it up, but you shouldn’t rely on it wholly. Incidentally, these phrase checks are how I find most of the stolen works.

Do note, however, that these do not always search for words in published books. Book blurbs, however, do seem to show up with more frequency.

Be Open About What You’re Working On

Sixth, do talk about your stories if you are going to post them online before they are officially published. Make it clear what you’re working on. You don’t have to post whole segments if you don’t want to, but it can help as social media posts are admissible. Ideas themselves can’t be copyrighted, and there are likely many stories that you can

Be Professional

Seventh, if you do find out that someone has stolen your work, handle it professionally. Generally, the steps remain the same, and you don’t even need a lawyer to help you with this at the beginning. It is often recommended to contact the individual first and to ensure that it is not fair use. But if we’re talking about out and out plagiarism, that is actually easy to prove. If you choose to skip this step, then you contact the host administrator and inform them what has happened.

Sometimes they will ask that you file a DMCA at the same time rather than requiring the DMCA to be a separate step. You can also send a cease and desist letter.

Now to be clear, a cease and desist letter does not require an attorney or a judge. A cease and desist order does require a hearing and a judge. The cease and desist letter is something you can pick up in a template online, and it puts the individual on notice that you are exercising your rights as the owner of the copyright and you are not allowing this usage. If I am contacting a website or an individual directly, I tend to use these.  It also helps me to know what to say without becoming inflammatory.

The process often branches here. Some places like Amazon tend to respond to a copyright notice by pulling down the content and notifying the person who posted it of the strike. Youtube follows a similar procedure. The two have the opportunity to present their case for ownership. Depending on the platform, this can sometimes be quite frustrating because the room to respond is often limited so use your words wisely and avoid feeling language. Focus on the facts. Usually first response goes to the plagiarist after the complaint, but if you have proof of copyright registration (the certificate of registration), that should be open and shut (but not always; bear in mind that this provides prima facie evidence that the owner of the certificate is the owner of the work, but it can be challenged; however, most plagiarists are not going to get in this far; they want fast and easy success).

Now demanding disgorgement of profits made on your work is something that I often get asked about. I’ve actually never gone this route, primarily because none of my stories have generated enough to warrant it. And once you pull money into it, you slow things down. You can always ask for it. But oftentimes, this requires more legal action. In some cases, monetary platforms will do that automatically.

Eighth, relatively few of these cases actually go to court. Most are settled before it reaches that point. The ones that do move forward such as the Rachel Nunes case are usually more exciting because of how egregious they are. This does not mean that other cases aren’t out there.

A Few More Caveats

Be cautious of naming and shaming, particularly if you have an engaged fan and reader base. One of my thieves had a name that I realized was fairly common in India. If I had just listed her name, it could have led to some serious problems for innocent women with that same name. As angry as you are with the thief, do not take action that will harm innocents. This does not mean that you cannot talk about what is happening. It means simply that you must exercise caution.

It is neither fun nor pleasant to behave with restraint, but it will help you in your case against the plagiarist. Do not make threats of violence, death, or rape to the plagiarist. Do not use slurs of any kind. You do not want to create sympathy for the violator. (I know that it should not make a difference because what the plagiarist did is wrong, but people are emotional.)

Keep a log of all the actions you have taken. If the matter escalates further and you need to speak with an attorney, this log will be helpful in demonstrating what has been done.

Screenshot and save the conversations. Save emails and all other information. Not only is this evidence, but it will also help in your case in the event that you need legal representation and in proving your case.

All the best in your writing. I’m thinking about following this up with a one that deals with how to protect yourself online and another that deals with piracy and one that deals with idea theft and one that deals with Facebook posts, articles, and similar thefts. Let me know your thoughts.

And if you have any experiences with your stories being stolen/plagiarized, please feel free to share in the comments.

 

 

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