I wrote this article to bring awareness to a huge problem on the Internet, copyright infringement. The act of copying and using another author’s work is prolific on the Internet, and it is plagiarism and/or copyright infringement to include trademark infringement. Let’s start with some basic definitions.
Copyright – The definition of copyright by Merriam-Webster is: the legal right to be the only one to reproduce, publish, and sell the contents and form of a literary or artistic work.
Infringement – Depending on the source, the definition for infringement is: a breach, infraction or violation of a law, regulation, agreement or contract.
Copyright Infringement– The explanation of copyright infringement by the U.S. Copyright Office is: As a general matter, copyright infringement occurs when a copyrighted work is reproduced, distributed, performed, publicly displayed, or made into a derivative work without the permission of the copyright owner.
Plagiarism – The definition of plagiarism by Merriam-Webster is: The act of using another person’s words or ideas without giving credit to that person: the act of plagiarizing something.
Internet – The definition of the Internet by Merriam-Webster is: an electronic communications network that connects computer networks and organizational computer facilities around the world.
The Internet changed the world
It is prolific! The Internet changed the way we live, the way we view things, and the way we do things. I, like many others, lived in a world without the Internet for many, many years. I grew up without the internet. If you had to research a homework assignment you went to the public library. If you wanted to purchase a product you went to a store that sells the product. Then came the Internet. The Internet made almost everything we do, easier to do. And it made plagiarism and copyright infringement easier to do too. You just copy, paste, post and voila, it’s that simple.
Our company, RV Education 101®, would be classified as a dot-com company. As the Internet grew, so did the entrepreneurial spirit to get rich quick. The Internet spawned the growth of small and large companies with products to sell and a domain name to create a dot-com business overnight. Lots of the dot-com start-up companies from the 90’s are long gone now. The companies who managed to survive the “dot-com boom” did so by learning the way of the world wide web. Somewhere along the way, you learn about Search Engine Optimization or SEO, and the need for unique, rich, quality content to survive in your tiny space on the Internet.
Our company survived the dot-com boom, and this year we are celebrating our 20th work anniversary. As the company grew, so did the struggle to defend our name and our brand from the barrage of copyright infringement. We are a video production and RV information company, so copyright infringement on the Internet would eventually affect every aspect of our business, (articles, checklists, videos, photographs and our name.) We worked too hard to get where we are today to let copyright infringement take away what is rightfully ours.
This is our story, and our struggle against copyright infringement on the Internet
We started RV Education 101® in 1999. As an emerging dot-com business owner, the initial business model was to produce RV training videos, market them to RV dealerships across the country, who in turn would gift them to customers who purchased RVs. The training videos we produced at the time were similar to a dealership customer walk-through orientation, but in video format, and more thorough.
When we started the company, the Internet was in its infancy. I can remember hearing about the Internet in the early nineties, but it wasn’t until several years later that its popularity took hold. I had a catchy name (RV Education 101), somewhat of a business plan, and enough cash in my pocket to pay for a two or three-page website. Suddenly, I was in business and I realized there was a lot I didn’t know, but what I did know was RVs and teaching people how to use and maintain RVs.
I learned early on, if we were going to succeed as an Internet business, we had to market our RV training material directly to the end-user. We built our first website, and I started writing e-books on RV related topics, and producing RV training videos. I can remember publishing my first e-book in 2001, and trying to keep the file size at or below 1 MB, so people could download the file using a dial-up Internet connection. At the time, text files were okay, but images caused files to download slowly, or not at all. YouTube didn’t exist, and we were one of, if not the only online RV business at the time to post short how-to videos on our website. I would edit and compress the video files and send them to our webmaster’s FTP site, where he posted them on the video page of our website. We were ahead of the times when it came to online videos.
In the late nineties, and early 2000’s there was very little in the way of RV related content available on the Internet. After I made the decision to market our RV training products directly to the consumer, we employed methods to help drive traffic to our product’s selling site. We learned strategies like using keywords, search engine optimization and this thing called a Blog. I wrote more e-books and I wrote articles for magazines and for companies in the RV industry who we partnered with. My RV how-to articles and RV tips are published on Blogs and on other websites we cross-promoted with. I used excerpts from my e-books when I wrote articles, to drive traffic to our website and increase our product sales. We were one of the early pioneers to produce RV related material on the World Wide Web. Fast-forward twenty years and we still continue to produce and sell RV training videos, books and e-books. My articles and RV content have been posted online prolifically for two decades. That’s a lot of online content!
Here Lies the Problem:
As the Internet grew, so did content creation. Content is king, as the old saying goes. Content marketing informs and educates consumers, resulting in big money for lots of folks. The more eyes looking at the material you promote and sell, the more sales you get. The RV industry was a niche online market in the early 2000’s, and there were only a handful of people providing quality RV content at the time.
My military background in fleet maintenance operations, and teaching young soldiers how to maintain and repair equipment and vehicles crossed over nicely to training RV owners how to properly and safely use and maintain their RVs. The more I wrote technical, and RV how-to articles the more others wanted the content rich material. Every industry represented online, including the RV industry, was looking for accurate, vetted content to attract more consumers.
As early as 2003 I discovered my articles being used by other individuals. All of my attribution was stripped, and in the majority of instances other people signed their names as the author of the stolen content.
For me, as a content provider, this problem would grow in leaps and bounds by 2005.
I found more and more of my stolen content posted online, especially knowledge-based articles on topics RV owners are interested in learning more about. RVs are not like your home, so there is a degree of difficulty in learning important topics about RVs, and all the ancillary information having to do with RVs. Hence, people search the internet for this content rich material. Every RV website online wants people to land on their page and purchase a product or service from them, not from the other guy. My motivation for writing and posting informative RV related articles is the same as others, to drive more traffic to our sites where RV owners can purchase our RV training videos, books and e-books. When individuals land on someone else’s page and view my stolen content, I am losing potential profit.
Unfortunately, this was just the tip of the iceberg!
Website owners employ ghost writers (with no identity), there are link farms and technology like article spinning and article rewriting, making it easier for people to steal content, and more difficult to defend what is rightfully yours. I discovered one RV site exclusively constructed around one of my e-books. They used every chapter (verbatim) as the content to build and promote the site. I discovered other websites that stole and posted an entire library of my articles and derivatives of my articles in an attempt to get more traffic to their site. I found myself spending countless hours trying to get my content removed from all of these sites.
For several years I dealt with copyright violations by contacting the administrators of websites that posted infringing content without my permission, asking them to take it down.
The copyright infringement continued, and grew larger in scale. The Internet is a powerful tool for the not-so-honest individuals to capitalize on. When consumers desire content that is technical in nature, dishonest content providers find ways to steal the content while avoiding detection. I mentioned article spinning and article rewriting a moment ago; technology is available for unscrupulous people to search for content rich material, and at the push of a button automatically rewrite the article to avoid detection. Half of the time, the article no longer makes sense, and if it is technical in nature the rewrite can adversely affect the original content. Dangerous huh?
I registered my copyrights and trademarks, and it was the best thing I could have done
During the process of protecting my copyrighted material I discovered ways to locate my content that others copied. I search the Internet using key words based on the time of year it is. For example, in the fall of the year I search using terms like “how to winterize your RV” or “RV winterizing.” Within seconds I discover sites using my RV winterizing articles verbatim, without permission. When I search terms like this it’s not uncommon for 10 or more of the first 25 sites that appear in the search to have my content. I mentioned earlier, RVs are a niche market as it pertains to technical writers who post content on the Internet. I have done this for a long time, so my content is not only desirable, it is everywhere. To date, I have written well over 1,600 RV related articles, and produced and posted over 400 RV videos on our YouTube channel. Our YouTube channel, as I am writing this, has over 13,000,000 views. When you take that kind of Internet presence, and add quality rich content, people are going to copy it. I remember discovering a person who took one of our hour-long RV training videos, had it transcribed, and produced an exact replica with himself as the host. He replicated 500 copies with plans to sell to the public. Fortunately we were able to catch it and stop it.
I think it’s safe to say some people are uninformed about copyright infringement, thinking it’s okay to use someone’s content, while others are simply corrupt, and knowingly steal your content.
Eventually I realized that if I was going to defend what I had built, I needed help. Many years ago, a friend recommended a copyright attorney to us, and after speaking with her a few times we felt extremely comfortable with her representing our company. She was well aware of the scope and size of copyright infringement on the Internet. She told us how common it was for other industries to experience the same problems, explaining it like this, if an attorney’s firm wants to increase its presence on the Internet it is cheaper for them to pay a content provider for material to post on their site, than it is to use an attorney’s time to write the content. Then she asked where I thought the content provider got the information from? It was most likely stolen from other attorney’s sites on the Internet. This is an alarming problem for every industry doing business on the Internet.
This is what our attorney, Brenna Legaard has to say about copyright infringement on the Internet:
“As consumers of content, we need to understand that compelling original content is valuable, and creating it is expensive. It requires somebody with unusual expertise, creative thinking, and the ability to express ideas in a compelling way. As business owners, we need to make sure that when we buy original content, it truly is original content, which usually means paying what it costs to create original content. This is not just ethical, it’s what the law requires: if you publish infringing content on your website, you are liable for copyright infringement even if you did not know it was infringing. Free content is never free. As creators of original content, the best thing you can do is what Mark did long ago: register your works with the U.S. Copyright Office. Registration gives you a basket of legal rights that you need to effectively protect your works, such as the right to recover your attorneys fees if you have to sue somebody.”
Dealing with one or two stolen articles is different than dealing with 40 or more articles taken by one company
We are a very small company, in the scope of things, and paying attorney fees can quickly deplete your working capital. When copyright violations affected us on a larger scale, we had to decide whether to dismiss it, or defend what rightfully belongs to us. If you chose the latter, you best be prepared for the long haul, both mentally and monetarily. You can easily spend thousands of dollars to have content removed from the Internet, and get nothing in return.
On two separate occasions, we discovered media companies using my content to provide content to their paying clients. You can’t make this stuff up! These are media companies selling content to clients, when much of the content belongs to me. These companies are much larger than our company, and have deeper pockets. Sometimes they employed methods like spinning the articles to avoid detection, and other times the articles were verbatim. Nothing infuriates me more than a large company copying my content, and then charging someone else for it.
We knew we were right, and both of these companies knew they were wrong. We got our attorney involved and both companies fought it tooth and nail. Their tactics were to make us spend so much money defending our work that we would either go broke or simply give up. But when you have registered copyrights, and a damn good attorney, the truth will prevail. We struggled at times, both physically and monetarily, but we have successfully defended our copyrights.
This problem is not going away anytime soon
I don’t know a lot about copyright laws, but I do know the current laws on the books cannot address, or keep up with the size and scope of copyright problems on the Internet. It is pervasive, and if you think it is going away anytime soon you are wrong. We are a very small company in a niche market, but I can literally find hundreds upon hundreds of my stolen articles on the Internet. I write lots of RV content, but that doesn’t give others the right to steal my content!
The problem is expansive, the problem is out of control, the problem is too big to enforce, and there is no stopping the problem
Individuals know this, small companies know this and large marketing companies know this. I used the example about winterizing an RV earlier; this is how the process unfolds. I produce a new RV training video on how to winterize your RV. I write an abbreviated RV winterizing article to promote the new video. To maximize readership and drive traffic to my video selling site I title the article, “How to Winterize your RV in 7 Simple Steps.” We post the article on my blog, and on our social media sites. The article garners attention from potential buyers of the new product, and from other not so honest people who see the benefit of posting the article on their site without my permission. It might be an RV dealer trying to sell RV winterizing products. It might be a company that sells content to other companies. It might be an RV storage facility, or a mobile RV technician, or an RV blog, or an RV dealer promoting its service department, or an RV product website, or another RV writer. Seriously, this is how it happens, and how fast it spreads across the Internet.
This is just one article
You can start to envision how large the problem is. While some might unknowingly think they are simply borrowing the article, or creating a derivative of my article without my permission, others blatantly steal the content. My business model, for driving traffic to our selling site, has now turned into a free-for-all for others to capitalize on.
The cost involved to defend your copyrighted material is substantial. It’s not fair, but it’s a reality.
We have spent thousands upon thousands of dollars to have my content removed from other sites, and to protect our brand. I don’t go looking for all of these copyright infringement violators, they come up in my daily work. If I am writing a new blog post on a topic, it’s easy for me to pull up one of my previous articles relating to the topic for reference. When I search for my article, other sites using my content show up in the search. When I see an infringement, I save the URL to a copyright file in an email folder. This, by far is the largest file folder I have. I won’t tolerate another company, or content creator taking and using dozens upon dozens of my articles for their profit. Fair warning, I will not stand for it.
This is an ongoing battle. Sometimes we win a battle, but we will never win the war against Internet copyright infringement. We created a viable business model to significantly improve our sales figures, and it has grown into an unmanageable copyright infringement file in epic proportion.
Bill Gates was right when he said, “Content is where I expect much of the real money will be made on the Internet, just as it was in broadcasting.”
If you are knowledgeable on a topic, and want to create online content on the topic I strongly recommend you register all of your work with the Library of Congress Copyright Office. And, if you are like me and produce large quantities of informative content online, prepare yourself to start policing the world wide web if you want to protect what rightfully belongs to you.
Mark J. Polk