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Do You Know Who’s Using Your Content? Here are Some Tactics for Finding Out.

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Publishers and authors are seriously concerned that their content will be used without attribution and without payment now that anybody can do a quick online search to find—and sometimes appropriate–almost any kind of text or images. Some Web site developers, bloggers, and writers who “borrow” material are unaware they don’t have a legitimate right to it. But some would rather use the research and writing you and your authors have done than create material themselves. And some authors overlook the fact that they cannot resell material they have licensed exclusively to you.

For the past few years, many of us have relied on free Google Alerts to turn up online references to material we have published. The alerts have served as a clip service for our publicity departments, helped us track down unauthorized use of material, and notified us of announcements from other publishers of forthcoming titles from our authors that impinge on our contracts.

But Google Alerts has significant shortcomings as a tool for checking for improper use of content:

  • Each name, term, or text reference that you want monitored has to be entered separately (so you have to anticipate what might be copied).
  • An alert often includes irrelevant material. For example, a Google Alert set up for “Independent Book Publishers Association” is as likely to provide references like “independent book publishers have several associations” despite Google’s suggestion that you use quotation marks to better restrict your search terms.
  • Alerts search for only very brief passages; in a recent test, I was able to enter just 40 words.

Initially, of course, we did these searches manually. Once each month, for instance, I created a chart with the authors’ names, book titles, and phrases I wanted to check, and the names of major search engines. It took hours to key in the information. Today, publishers can seek more precise reporting and enforcement of copyright from services such as Attributor, Copyscape, and iCopyright that monitor the Internet, checking to see where particular text and images appear, and in some cases taking action (for more on infringement, see “Rights at Risk on the Internet” in this issue).

Protecting Your Intellectual Property

Attributor, founded in 2005 and based in Redwood City, CA, is one of the best publicized of these services. “Some large publishers say that we find five times as much piracy with our automated search as they did by themselves,” says Rich Pearson, vice president, text-monitoring services. This is not a surprise when you look at a recent Attributor monthly report for a single customer; it shows almost 5,200 “takedown” notices sent to the 31 sites most notorious for piracy.

Even if you’re not worried about who uses the content of your books, there are reasons to consider a monitoring service. For example:

  • plagiarism in manuscripts submitted to you
  • previous publication of manuscripts submitted to you
  • unauthorized use of promotional language about your authors or company, including claims that the authors or you are part of another firm’s team
  • use of your material to attract visitors to sites with such malware as viruses and worms
  • use of your material to attract visitors to inappropriate and fraudulent sites, such as those that show pornographic images or commit click fraud, collecting payments for each visitor lured to the site by illicitly appropriated text

“Every time I hire someone to write an article for me, I check the submission via Copyscape,” says Roosevelt Purification, who works for Hievie.com, based in Silver Spring, MD. Copyscape “goes online and searches for duplicate contents. I am not aware of its technical algorithm but it can find matches based on phrases and paragraphs.”

However, he says, Copyscape (founded in 2004 and based in Gibraltar; copyscape.com) does best with public databases and Web sites. So content copied from a password-protected, fee-based Web site may not be detected.

Sarasota, FL, writer Maddie Gardener uses her Copyscape account to ensure that nobody else is using the freelance pieces she wants to revise and resell, just as publishers and authors might want to check that nobody else is using excerpts and adaptations from books they’d like to provide, with minimal revision, to different media as exclusives.

At Writing with Elegance, in Mount Holly, NJ, Tara Clapper reports on a copyright infringement that Copyscape detected. After she discussed attire for the main character in True Blood on her blog, The Costumer (thecostumer.today.com), a fan site for this HBO program, copied more than half her post. The site did provide her URL, but without a link.

“I’ve found PR firms and other publicists who have used copy from my Home page word for word—words that brand me as different from other media coaches,” says Susan Harrow, a San Rafael, CA, media coach and the author of Sell Yourself Without Selling Your Soul (HarperCollins). Harrow notes that Copyscape helps her catch others who have “used my copy and my photo to pretend I’m part of their team in an effort to attract clients.”

Like any of us who post articles and book excerpts on our Web sites, sell white papers or parts of books, or use copyrighted material as handouts, Harrow creates material that a Web site monitor can find: One site “nicked my articles and was selling them—and the site’s guarantee was that it didn’t plagiarize,” she reports. “Bloggers post my articles, with all my personal case studies of clients, without any attribution and as if it they were speaking from their own experience.”

The third company mentioned above, iCopyright (icopyright.com), functions as an online clip service, copyright monitor, and rights licensor. Founded in 1998 and based in Seattle, it aims to help content users instantly—and legally—secure the rights to reproduce and share content while respecting the rights of the copyright holder. Similar services for images are Corrigon, based in Tel Aviv, and PicScout, based in Scotts Valley, CA, and Hertzelia, Israel.

Services’ Scope and Fees

Attributor, Copyscape, and iCopyright all operate on a subscription basis, with some offering a few free and piece-based services.

For example, at Copyscape a few searches per month can be free, and additional searches for selected text are billed at five cents each to subscribers to its Premium service. Its CopySentry subscription services start at $5 a month for weekly comparison of the text on your Web site with other online material if your site has 10 or fewer pages. Larger sites and daily monitoring increase the subscription costs.

The free service is especially easy to use: simply type in the URL of your Web site. With the Premium service you can also paste in “off-line” text to be checked for publication elsewhere. The company claims it can catch text that has been slightly modified as well as exact copies.

What Copyscape cannot do is distinguish between infringements and either authorized use of copyrighted material (for example, a quote in a review) or public domain material. It also cannot determine which Web site copied from which, and the company does not contact apparent violators of copyright.

Attributor, which launched its print copyright monitoring services in July 2009, offers FairShare, a free program for bloggers, and FairShare Guardian, a fee-based service that creates a “fingerprint” of client content and then crawls the Internet, searching for exact matches to fingerprints. Pearson says Attributor can match as few as seven or eight words, and as much as an entire document. Because clients provide the text to be checked, Attributor can monitor both material published online and material published in print on paper.

In most cases, it acts as a publisher’s agent, contacting the owners of violating sites and, if necessary, pursuing the issue with servers, Internet service providers (hosts), and search engines, which will not refer to Web sites known to be using unauthorized text. Attributor can also provide publishers with reports of the sites that are using material illegally, and the number of downloads of the infringing content. This allows publishers to sue for damages if the infringing site is generating revenue from text it does not own, or if it’s reducing the revenue the publisher should be recognizing, says Pearson.

With fees based on volume, Attributor’s Tier I option is most appropriate for larger publishers. Its fee includes manual verification of each copy found with the automated service. The cost can be about $10 per title per month. Tier II, used for backlist titles or selected searches, can cost as little as $2 per title per month. It’s an automated matching service with no manual checks.

iCopyright, which initially focused on rights licensing, launched Discovery in mid-2008 as a service that allows publishers to track both authorized and unauthorized uses of content and to follow up with licensing offers—or threats of legal actions for infringement. Discovery uses a combination of text fingerprinting and recognition of copyright tags that iCopyright’s customers attach to their online content. The company describes a tag as a fragment of metadata embedded in each article and shown as a series of links, or, for material published in hard copy, as the standard copyright notice.

Services can be purchased on a per-use basis or by subscription. “A publisher who has deployed our best-practices toolbar, the intelligent copyright notice, and a full set of our licensing services gets Discovery at no additional charge. The service fee is based upon the number of new articles a publisher tags each month, starting at $50 per month for as many as 250 articles,” explains Andrew Elston, vice president for publisher services. Those who select the pay-as-you-go option can choose “per suspect” or “per search” options and can limit how much they spend each month.

Linda Carlson writes from Seattle, and once found a chapter of one of her books pirated and sold as a pamphlet.

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