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.
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
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.
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.