How to Defend Your Online Publishing Content From Theft

Uncommon sense about when to link and how much to quote

Protecting intellectual property is every publisher’s responsibility

There is a firestorm of controversy growing over how much content can be excerpted from one website and used on another.

This is a serious issue, with property rights and free speech issues hanging in the balance.

Perhaps you’ve never thought about it this way, but Google and Google News are essentially major aggregators whose business model is to show headlines and a few lines of text, then link to an online publisher’s website.

Linking is fundamental to the web’s architecture and culture. All online publishers link to other websites and content. As publishers, we encourage incoming links to boost search engine rankings.

But what happens if another publisher capitalizes on your content by hijacking your best search-engine-optimized keyword headlines and lead paragraphs to his own advantage?

Late last year, one major newspaper publisher sued another, alleging copyright infringement over verbatim headlines and snippets that were routinely copied and posted online.

It’s not surprising that news organizations, Internet researchers, independent bloggers, and publishers that aggregate news online by linking to a variety of news sites all anxiously awaited a resolution. Unfortunately, in January 2009, the case was quietly settled out of court.

To date, there have been no clear guidelines from the courts as to what constitutes fair practice. Anyone can allege copyright, trademark infringement and unfair competition, with each case being tried separately.

The Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, which does research and advocacy on free speech, newsgathering, intellectual property, and other legal issues related to online speech, is wrestling with the issue, but thus far it is unresolved.

Fair use has consequences for both journalists and advertisers. Some newspapers that have made their content free online may decide to revert back to a pay-per-view model. That may be the only way to stop other website publishers from stealing their content, posting it online, and earning advertising revenue from it.

I’m not a lawyer (and I don’t play one on TV), but I have some strong opinions on this controversy.

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My strong opinions, plus tips for dealing with copy thieves

First, I believe each publisher must have the right to monetize their own content as they see fit. Intellectual property is property, and property rights must be protected as part of the rule of law in a civilized society.

Second, fair comment is supposed to be an extension of free speech — the right in a free society to comment positively or negatively on someone else’s intellectual property. Fair comment was never meant to be a license to steal the property of others.

Third, as for guidelines, using a word count or a percentage of the word count would greatly facilitate and encourage both respect for intellectual property rights and the right to free speech, which are cornerstones of a civilized and safe society.

I tell my consulting clients that 150 words or 10 percent of the original work is a good guideline for fair comment. And fair comment means you must add a comment, not simply quote the original content.

If you are a membership website content provider, you should always on the lookout for news concerning your niche topic. For that, there is a very useful robot at Google Alerts that will help manage your reputation, monitor your competitors, and generate leads for your business.

But what if you discover that a competitor has ripped off your website content and gone into direct (and illegal) competition with you? How would you know about this interloper if someone didn’t tell you?

Another robot, Copyscape, can help you to identify sites that have copied your content without permission, as well as who is quoting your site.

Copyscape is easy to use. Go to Type in the URL of your original content, and Copyscape returns a list of website pages that contain the same text.

Copyscape isn’t foolproof; it may miss text that has not yet been indexed by Google. But it’s a place to start.

What to do if you discover theft?

Again, this is not legal advice, but others who have experienced online plagiarism have reacted as follows:

  1. Go to to determine who the URL is registered to and who hosts the site.
  2. Go to Google and do a search of “cease and desist letter” to find a model letter you could send to the offender.
  3. Send a notice of copyright infringement to the offender’s web host. They should shut his website down promptly.

Copyscape also recommends this: File a notice of Digital Millennium Copyright Act infringement with Google and other search engines to have the offending site removed from their search results.

Want to learn more about content management, plus 11 other issues that are vital to online publishing success?

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    Great post Don. I agree with your approach and you’ve suggested some tools that will undoubtedly prove very useful in dealing with this important issue.



    Your post was forwarded to me to read and it’s great to have some idea as to how to protect original content. Have you written or can you reference articles that might shed some light on the confusing issue of how to properly cite and credit another writer? I write for several outlets and when it comes to posting stories on the web I must admit I’ve seen conflicting info about what’s really required, do’s and don’ts, etc. Any help is appreciated.


    Sounds like a great idea for a future post…

    We’ll do some research and put something together.



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