When you craft an amazing image, compose a song, or even come up with a clever tweet, you’re eager to share your work with the world. But once it goes online, anyone can duplicate your digital creation and pass it off as their own. Before you publish original art or ideas, take steps to protect your copyright. And if thieves do claim your work, here’s how to fight back.
Technically, you don’t need to apply for an official copyright to claim your work. As soon as you create original content, you own the copyright to it. Still, in any legal challenge over copyright infringement, a record of registration provides solid evidence that you own the work in question. This proof of ownership can deter some people from stealing your work. Here’s how to get it.
To record a copyright, apply for one online with the U.S. Copyright Office. At that link, you fill out a form, provide a copy of the work in question, and pay a fee of $35 to $55, depending on what you’re submitting.
Registration legally prohibits others from making money off your work or claiming it as their own. That said, people can still sample your creation under what’s known as Fair Use. For example, a professor can show a short snippet of your movie during a filmmaking class without having to pay you. The exact line between fair use and infringement is blurry and may require a case-by-case assessment, but in general, it depends how much of the work is used and for what purpose. It’s largely common sense—if someone is building a reputation or making money off your creation, then they’re obviously in the wrong.
Beyond claiming your copyright, you can protect your work in other ways. The exact method depends on your medium.
For photos and art
If you’re a visual artist, you can check whether people are stealing your creations with a Google Image Search. Visit that link and click the camera icon, then upload your photo or digital art to see if someone has published your work elsewhere without your permission.
Whether or not this has happened, you should take steps to protect your work with a watermark, a copyright notice, or a low image resolution.
Perhaps the best way to broadcast that your work belongs to you is branding it with a watermark. As people share an image over and over again social media, the artist’s credit can get lost. But labeling your visuals with your name or another identifier prevents this, as well as deterring potential copyright infringers. Plus, you don’t need to register a copyright to stick your symbol on your creation. To drop your name, logo, and even the date on top of a picture, you can use any decent image-editing program. That said, if you’re stuck for inspiration, then free web app Pixlr will do the job. Watermark is another free online option, and it also offers a $4.17-per-month subscription that lets you process multiple images at once.
In addition, when you publish your art online, consider displaying a copyright notice near it. For example, Flickr lets you label your uploads with a Creative Commons license that tells people the terms under which they can reuse your work. This makes it clear that you do not give permission for image sharing, but it doesn’t guarantee that bad actors won’t pinch your work.
Another effective way to deter content thieves is by reducing the resolution of your images. This works best if you’re posting pictures to an online portfolio—a low-res picture will still showcase your work, but nobody will have access to the high-quality, high-resolution version. To do this, you can shrink down picture size in any image editor, or in a web app like Canva if you’d prefer to do it online.
For videos and music
Unfortunately, it can be hard to figure out whether someone is duplicating your original videos or music, as thieves will often change elements like titles and labels. To make sure nobody’s ripping you off, you have to manually check popular sharing services like YouTube and SoundCloud and see if anything similar to your work pops up. You don’t have to monitor every site though: To justify the effort of stealing your material, people will probably try to make money off it, which means posting it to high-profile sites first.
Again, you be proactive to prevent this from happening. Post obvious copyright notices alongside your work, and consider embedding some kind of ownership information within the digital file itself. Any decent editing software can add this type of difficult-to-remove watermark. In fact, for video clips, YouTube has its own watermark-branding option: Go to YouTube.com/branding, click Add a watermark, and upload a watermark image. This will appear on top of all the clips in your channel. You can also rely on the Watermark app we mentioned earlier. it also handles videos, allowing you to brand the first 30 seconds of a clip for free, or pay for a subscription to process entire videos.
You can also take a few other precautions. For one thing, don’t upload your video or audio to a site that lets users easily download your material. You can rely on platforms like YouTube and SoundCloud, and they also mark uploads with a timestamp, which can help prove your ownership of a clip. Another way to demonstrate that you’re the creator of a track is to keep all your original project files together. Finally, if you upload a substantial amount of video to YouTube, the service can send you alerts when a new upload seems to be duplicating your existing content.
Thanks to copy-and-paste, just about anyone can take an article or short story you’ve written, change the author, and re-post it under a stranger’s name. A simple Google search for sentences and phrases you’ve used recently should turn up any unscrupulous content thieves duplicating your work. In addition, the website Copyscape will look for articles that match something you’ve already written. For every search you run, the first ten results appear for free, but if you’d like to see more, you need to upgrade to Copyscape Premium, which charges $0.03 for each extended search.
To prevent this from happening to your writing, you don’t have many options. After all, you can’t brand your writing with a watermark. You can still put a copyright notice near your words, which is only a small deterrent (but better than nothing). Even better, you can place that notice—together with your piece’s original URL—in the center of the text to trip up lazy scammers who simply copy-and-paste whole articles.
At the very least, you can prove that you put your material online first. So, if you’re publishing work on your own site or blog, make sure your template includes timestamps and author information. Then be vigilant about checking for copies of your work. If duplicates do turn up, the next section explains how you can fight back.
What to do if someone steals your creative property
Any measures to protect your content from scammers can only go so far. If someone is really determined to take what you’ve made and duplicate it elsewhere, they can. So keep an eye out for duplicates of your work, and if you find them, take action.
As a first step, you might try contacting the thieves directly, though don’t expect much of a response. If they’re hosting the stolen work on a well-known site or service, it’s best to get in touch with that company. YouTube, Flickr, Spotify, and most other major portals offer mechanisms so you can report copyright infringement. After all, those sites don’t want to host pirated content.
While you’re attempting direct contact, you can also broadcast your story on social media. This helps embarrass the thieves, encourage the official service to respond quickly, and drum up support from the online community. However, don’t jump onto Twitter before you try reaching out through the official channels.
If the stolen content stays up despite your complaints, it might be time to start thinking about legal action. However, this can get very complicated very quickly, and the best way forward depends on the details of your particular situation. The Copyright Office recommends that you consult a copyright lawyer to figure out what your options are and whether you have a case.