Friday, December 19, 2008

How to Confront Someone Who Has Stolen Intellectual Property

If you used the tools that I posted a few days ago, some of you may have found some things that you didn't know were out there. I was recently alerted to another photographer who was using the wording from my website almost exactly as I had written it. When you discover someone using your content without your permission, I suggest taking the following steps:

1. Take a Screen Shot of Copied Content
Before doing anything else, get evidence by taking a screen shot of what you're seeing and make sure you include the complete context in which you're seeing it. For example, if it's on a website or blog- be sure to include the http address and title of the website as seen in your browser. Here are some instructions for taking a screen shot with >Windows< or >Mac<.

2. Take a Screen Shot of Original Content
Same as above, but now you need to capture where the original content appears on your website or blog, for proof that the two examples are either identical, or much too similar to be a derivative.

3. Take a Break
While you're probably infuriated at the thought of someone using your original content, it will be much easier to deal with after you've taken a break to get some fresh air, a hot bath or shower, a nap, a glass of wine, or just after doing something to help you relax and gain a little more perspective. You may have been the first person to see this content and you may not know exactly how long the content has been online- taking a moment to step back and gain control of your feelings will help you approach the situation with a little more control. The worst thing you can do is fly off the handle at someone you don't even know, who may be a huge fan of yours, or who might have made an honest mistake.

4. Evaluate Your Claim
Visit the Copyright Website FAQ: to see if your claim falls within the guidelines of US Copyright Law. If someone has copied a unique pose, post-production method, or style, than they have not violated any copyright laws - they have simply been "inspired" by your work. However, if someone has directly taken content that was created by you and claims it as their own, than you may have rights within the system. Before you can know for sure, visit the website above and then seek a second opinion from people you trust to help you evaluate whether or not you're making a fair claim.

5. Contact the Copycat
Only after you've calmed down and determined that this is a direct infringement on your intellectual property, should you think about contacting the person who has copied your work. The best possible outcome is that they feel embarrassed and apologize for what they've done. The worst possible outcome is that they feel vindictive and seek other ways to harm you. Approach this the right way and you'll avoid the worst possible outcome. I suggest first contacting someone via email- that way you have a written and time-stamped record of the point at which you sought to remedy the situation. Simply state the facts that you have found their screen shot #1 to be either a direct copy or much too similar to your screen shot #2.

To make it super nice, I would let them know that I'm flattered they like my content, but that they needed to ask permission before using it. I would then ask that the copied content be removed within 24-48 hours, in an attempt to resolve the situation quickly and peacefully. Let them know that you will check back to make sure the content has been removed. Most people will feel incredibly embarrassed at this point and will want to deal with the situation without ever making an apology or admission for what they've done. If they really have made an honest mistake, they might apologize to you, but remember that the goal here is to simply have your content removed from their site. Anything above and beyond that is just a warm fuzzy for your ego.

6. Follow Up
After the time you've specified (no less than 24 hours) follow up to see that your content has been removed from their site. If it has been removed and/or replaced, I suggest following up with a thank you for their consideration in dealing with the matter promptly- even if you never received an admission or apology from them. This step of recognition and thanks is key to making sure the copycat is acknowledged for the correction so that they will be less likely to perform further damage to your personal brand or content. Remember, this person could very well be your biggest fan, and tell everyone how wonderful you are, so make sure you treat them respectfully. You still have a business to run, and every person who has an experience with you is developing an idea of what your brand means in their mind. Creating a positive impression even in the midst of a bad situation, will help keep your name and reputation clean.

Anne Ruthmann is a lifestyle & wedding photographer from Boston, MA. She spent 10 years in the corporate & non-profit world before pursuing her passion for photography. When not behind the computer or camera, she can be found exploring the world with her husband. Follow her on Twitter.


  1. Sadly this happens too often, but great advice here!

  2. well-written and well thought out, Anne. thanks for being a voice of wisdom in a profession that can lead to chaotic, dramatic relationships and frenemies.

  3. #3 is a very important step. Thanks so much for sharing this! I've been through it before, and it is not fun to deal with at all. Hopefully this will help the next person that has to deal with this.

  4. #3 - is gold. Thanks for sharing this approach Anne.

  5. lol, I send a friendly note with an invoice for use, to them and the ISP. J

  6. I had an incident recently where an Australian photographer literally copied two sections of my website verbatim, a couple of days later they changed some of the text.

    I actually didn't bother following up, as I didn't want to get into a dispute as to how much he could change before it became copyright violation. I just put a link on my blog to his version and my version as well as posting on the DWF. Two days later, his versions were off his site. My guess ... he checked his analytics.



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