How Creators Can Protect Their Work Online
The online landscape has changed the way we interact, how we communicate, and the way we share information. While it's brought lots of positives into our lives (cat memes, anyone?!), it's also a minefield for creatives when it comes to content ownership. As a contract lawyer, this is a question I get a lot from many of my clients and if I'm honest, giving the technically correct answer makes me feel like I'm not really doing my job properly.
"Well, the only way to 100% protect your work is not to share it."
It's never the answer they are looking for.
While posting to the internet doesn't mean you lose your copyrights in your work, it does make it more likely to be copied. The unfortunate reality is that as a creative, you need to get your work out there. You need to reach an audience to run your business and make money. You need to show people what you're about, and it's your own content and work that's going to do that.
It's also important to remember that if your work is stolen or used without permission, often the guilty party isn't aware that they aren't allowed to. There is still a permeating belief out there that everything on the internet is free to use. In these cases, often, a kind yet firmly worded message is sufficient to stop them in their tracks.
But what if those people are deliberately and knowingly using your work without permission and profiting from it? What if they are misleading their audience and the wider public that it's their work?
What can you do?
The first thing you should know is that you don't need to do anything to obtain the copyrights in any unique original creative work that you create. These rights are inherently granted to you the moment you create the work. For the purpose of this post, we're going to focus on literary and artistic works, such as e-books, photographs, drawings, paintings, or digital designs, but know that there is a broad range of creations where copyright applies.
For images and photography, the best practice is to use watermarks on all your images and try to avoid uploading a high-resolution image to social media. Your watermark doesn't have to be pasted across your entire image; just a discreet one in the corner is all it takes. There is, of course, the potential that this could have the opposite effect that you want to elicit, in that it actually discourages people from wanting to reshare or interact with your content. You'll need to make an assessment based on your work and how you want to present it to your audience.
Register Your Copyright
A certificate of registration is evidence that copyright exists and that the person registered is the owner of the copyright (unless the legitimacy of ownership or originality of the work is questioned). In the event of a claim, it's the best evidence you can have to support your position. It's also pretty easy and inexpensive (about $50) to do yourself. However, it's important to note that you are your own enforcer. Unfortunately, there's no Copyright Police Task Force, so you're it when it comes to policing how your work is used. If you do choose to register your copyright, you should include all items that you monetize and any items you'd be upset about if they were copied. It's also a good idea to register your copyright before it is published. In Canada, you don't need to have a copyright registered to pursue a claim, but it is useful in the event you ever need to defend a claim. Use the © symbol to mark your original works to notify the public you are the owner of the work. For instance, I mark all resource downloads from the Contracts Market with "© Contracts Market Inc. All Rights Reserved." to indicate I am the original creator of that piece of work. You don't need a copyright registration to use the "©" symbol.
Employ Tracking Tools
Like I said earlier, the online world is a minefield for creatives when it comes to protecting their work, but one good thing to come out of it is that there are plenty of specialized tools that can help you detect where your work is being used without your permission. From the classic reverse image search in Google or Tineye to more sophisticated content searching tools like Copyscape and image theft tools like Pixsy, these tools will help you periodically search to see if anyone is using your content without permission.
Trust Your Community
This is probably the toughest, but I like to think people are generally good and are buying from you for a reason. While it might feel better to create a fortress of protection, focusing on your clients and building your business will make for a much happier and engaged customer base, not to mention that it allows you to focus most of your time on creating work, rather than protecting it.
Lawyer Up When You Need To
If you've determined someone is using your content in ways they shouldn't be, I highly recommend reaching out to a lawyer that specializes in this as soon as possible. Like I said before, If credit wasn't given to you appropriately for a photo or graphic, sometimes a simple message goes a long way. However, if you determine someone is selling your course or other work and passing it off as their own, you need to take quick action, especially if it could affect your business.
Ultimately, much of the responsibility of protecting your work lies with you, and while you may never be able to fully and completely protect every piece of work, there are steps you can take that will help you protect yourself and enable you to take action against anyone using your work inappropriately, should the need arise.