A Step-by-Step Guide to Dealing with Content Theft

by | Feb 27, 2015

By Helen Sedwick

Content theft is big business, whether it’s illegally downloading movies or reposting blog posts without attribution. Every month Google receives more than 30 million requests to remove search results that link to allegedly infringing material. Thirty million a month!

Sooner or later, every blogger and writer will find her work reposted or republished without permission. Or she may find websites offering free PDFs downloads of her books.

The good news is writers have various options for dealing with content theft, and 99% of the time, they will not need an attorney. A little research and a few emails may do the trick.

Dealing with Online Piracy

  1. Contact the site directly.

    In most cases, if you email the infringing site and demand they remove your material, the site will comply. You may even get an apology. Believe it or not, some people still think everything on the internet is free to use.

  2. Send a takedown notice.
    If an email request does not work, or you are dealing with a site that is offering free downloads, the next step is to send a “takedown notice” under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). All writers should learn how to send takedown notices. Like locking your car or home, it’s easy and sensible.

    Social media sites like YouTube, Tumblr, Pinterest, and Facebook have online forms for reporting infringement and sending takedown notices. Typically, you’ll find them under links titled Legal, Copyright, Report a Problem, or Help. Here are the links for Facebook and Pinterest.

    If you are dealing with an infringing website, then you send the takedown notice to the ISP hosting the infringing site. Go to https://www.whoishostingthis.com/ or https://whois.net/ and type in the domain. Many ISPs have online forms for sending takedown notices.

    Penny Sansevieri recently wrote an excellent post about sending a takedown when her work was stolen. What to do When Someone Steals Your Stuff. Also look at the comments for great information.

    Plagiarism Today has downloadable forms for a cease-and-desist letter and a DMCA takedown notice. Its related company Copybyte offers a reasonably priced service that will send notices for you.

  3. Notify search engines.
    Next, contact Google Copyright Infringement Reporting Tool and request that the infringing site be removed from their search results.
  4. Contact advertisers. (optional)
    Jennifer Mattern, a top blogger on freelance issues, suggests you contact the site’s advertisers as well. I would not do so unless you are 100% certain the site is actually infringing your work (See Take A Deep Breath below).

    Once the social media site, ISP, or Goggle receives a takedown notice, it contacts the alleged infringer. If the infringer does nothing, then the infringing material is taken down. End of story.

  5. If that does not work…
    If the infringer disputes your claim, they may file a Counter Notification. If that happens, the online service will repost the infringing material unless you notify them within 14 business days that you have filed a legal action against the alleged infringer. Also, if the ISP is not based in the United States, it may simply ignore the takedown notice. In either of these cases, skip to When to Hire an Attorney.

Dealing with Piracy in Books and Ebooks

Stolen content in print and ebooks is particular upsetting. Amazon has an on-going problem with books and ebooks intended to trick buyers into purchasing the wrong product. According to Fortune Magazine, both Thirty-Five Shades of Grey and I am the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo sold thousands of copies before they were removed from Amazon’s site. Here are some options for ebook authors.

  1. Set up Goggle Alerts.
    I asked Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, for his advice. He suggested that “writers set up Google Alerts for their book titles and for unique text strings that appear in the first 10% and last 10% of the book. For example, if a book has a sentence such as James picked up the salamander and gazed at its iridescent eyes… that sentence will probably never ever appear in any other author’s book, so create a Google Alert on it. Writers could create an additional Google Alert leaving the character name out of the string in case someone simply tries to change character names and republish the book as their own.”
  2. Contact Amazon, Smashwords and other retailers.
    If you find an infringing book, then both Amazon and Smashwords will work with you to remove infringing materials or confusing knock-offs. Amazon’s copyright claims procedures can be found at Notice and Procedure for Making Claims of Copyright Infringement. For Smashwords, contact them through their website. I suspect every distributor has a similar process to assist authors.
  3. Register your copyright.
    If you have not already done so, registered the copyright in the work being infringed immediately. You cannot file a lawsuit unless the work is registered with the US Copyright Office. If you threaten to sue, and the infringer searches copyright records and doesn’t find your registration, they may call your bluff. For more on how to register your copyright, see Joel’s post How to Copyright Your Book.

When to Hire an Attorney

If the infringement continues despite your efforts, then consider hiring an attorney. A cease-and-desist letter on lawyer letterhead may be taken more seriously. Attorney Kathryn Goldman wrote a helpful two-piece article on Molly Greene’s blog on what to do if your ebook is pirated.

However, I would not hire an attorney or jump into litigation without asking yourself whether it will be worth the effort. Sure, if you sue and win, you may be entitled to collect damages, but your damages (lost sales) may be small and difficult to prove. The infringer may be overseas and unreachable. And litigation consumes money like wildfire, not to mentioned time, attention, and sleep.

Take a Deep Breath

Before you accuse someone of infringement, keep in mind:

  • Titles are not copyrightable. If someone uses a title similar to yours, you cannot claim infringement. Sorry.
  • Ideas, themes, facts, and historical events are not protected by copyright. If someone publishes work covering topics similar to yours, that is not automatically infringement. Infringement implies close copying how you expressed ideas and information, not the ideas and information themselves.
  • If someone is quoting your work for commentary, education, or review purposes, or creating a parody of your work, that is fair use and NOT infringement, no matter how scathing. Fair use is protected by the First Amendment, which trumps copyright law.
  • Those sites offering cheap or free PDFs are typically scams downloading malware or stealing credit card numbers. Anyone who clicks through on those sites was unlikely to buy your book anyway.
  • Don’t get caught up in a game of whack-a-mole. While it’s upsetting to see your work stolen, the theft may have little economic consequence to you. You could waste a lot of time chasing these low-lifes. As soon as you deal with one, others may pop up. Your energy may be better spent creating new work and finding new readers.

Have you experienced piracy? Have any other techniques worked for you?

Sedwick.HeadshotHelen Sedwick, is a Contributing Writer for The Book Designer. She is also an author and a California attorney with thirty years of experience representing businesses and entrepreneurs. Her latest book is Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook: The Step-by-Step Guide to the Legal Issues of Self-Publishing.

You can find more information about Helen here.

Disclaimer: Helen Sedwick is an attorney licensed to practice in California only. This information is general in nature and should not be used as a substitute for the advice of an attorney authorized to practice in your jurisdiction.
Photo: bigstockphoto.com

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  1. Nancy Reil Riojas

    Hello Helen, have read your post above and hope you can help me as I believe my theft situation differs somewhat. A popular international video on demand service (on line) that begins with an N has available for its viewers a popular scifi series that begins with an S. The writers for this series have plucked, lifted 40 elements (characters, attitudes, lines, scenes, props and more which have been tweaked and many of my scenes excluded) from one of my ebook novellas. And that count of elements is only in the first series alone. The second series begins October 2017 when I will once again make notes of every infringement. Contacting them is an option, but too late. Because of the magnitude of this entity, would an attorney contingency fee contract be attractive? N.R.R.

    • Helen Sedwick

      If you feel your work is being infringed, then you should consult with an attorney. In many large cities and communities, lawyers have formed groups that assist artists and writers for no fee or a reduced fee. You should start with them. Best of luck to you.

  2. paula cappa

    Hi Helen,
    My book was pirated just this week. I took your advice here and informed Amazon, Google DMCA, Smashwords, the domain registry GoDaddy ([email protected]), and the Internet Crime Complaint Center. The website that has my book up for free is located in Russia but it’s in English. I did find the owner’s email but am hesitant to email directly. Do people contact these thieves directly without risk? Is there anywhere else I should report this? Thanks.

    • Helen Sedwick

      I would not email them directly. They are likely to flood your inbox with SPAM.
      You done what you can. Good work.

  3. Hennie


    I was referred here by Marin Bookworks.

    I have read “The 66 Success Principles” by Jack Canfield and really enjoyed the book.

    I am a life coach specialising in parenting and wanted to use some of the generic stories eg Tim Ferris, Monty Roberts etc in an e-book that I am busy with. I do not however want to step outside the law.

    Am I permitted to use these generic stories (not Jack Canfield’s experiences)?

    Thanks in advance

    • Helen Sedwick

      Hennie, If the stories are generic and you use your own words to retell them, you should be on safe ground. If the stories are unique and you borrow too many elements, you may be inviting trouble. Similarly, if you cut and paste their words, that could be copyright infringement. You need to rewrite the stories in your own words.

  4. John Maberry

    One word of advice, you must jump through eye of a needle sized hoops to report DMCA infringing websites to Google to get them removed from search results. While the search result hyperlinks will take anyone right to the offending site, those links are neither sufficient nor usable in most cases for the webmaster (they really ARE YOUR MASTERS) tools folks that deal with this. You must reform any site listing to begin with https:// and delete any extraneous stuff after a minimal listing (stuff that would take someone right to the page with your book on it). It took me about 40 minutes and multiple tries to get every line in exactly the format they require for submission.

  5. Rosie McGee

    Helen – Great article! I love the phrase “whack-a-mole” to describe trying to repeatedly go after offenders, only to have them pop up in some other section of the garden! I have Google Alerts set up regarding my book title, my name etc., and I started getting alerts about “download a PDF of this book”. Being somewhat savvy, I was more concerned about folks clicking on that and getting malware in my name, rather than the theft of an actual copy of the book.

    I wrote to Google, filled out their form per the DMCA, and they deleted the site within 48 hours. Two days later, a new Google Alert showed up for the same thing. Then another, a week later.

    I decided not to bother whacking the mole. Instead, I posted an alert of my own on my FB author page and other social media, saying, “Hey – my book is not available as a PDF, so don’t click on any site that says it is! You may get a virus.”

  6. Flora Morris Brown


    Thanks for these vital tips. I especially like your advice in Take a Breath. A fellow retailer once stole my tagline, but she didn’t know I had recently decided to change it. It amazed me since we were in a small niche and members of the same networking group. Chasing these bottom-feeders is indeed an exercise in futility.

    Where’s the line when using quotes in our books? Some say you have to get permission to quote someone, but in college we could use quotes up to about 100 words to support our work as long as we gave attribution.

    If we have to get permission, does that mean that authors of inspirational books filled with nothing but quotes actually contacted all of those living people and/or their estates if their work is not in public domain yet or if the quote was uttered in a speech?

    Thanks again.

  7. S. J. Pajonas

    All very honest and sage advice. I don’t even deal with pirating anymore. It’s not worth the time or effort involved in the whack a mole approach, like you said.

    Also, that stock image at the top is hilarious. If only thieves actually dressed like that, they would be easier to identify ;)

  8. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

    I’m about to finish a book I’ve been serializing. My intention is to copyright it the day I finish it, along with my blog. Right now, no one but me knows the ending.

    After that, though, and before publication, I expect to make a number of changes. How major do these changes need to be before I copyright the whole work again?

    Thanks for your article – it is full of good stuff ( as is your book).

    Another quick question: do I have to have an attorney licensed to practice in my state for a copyright-related suit? How does the jurisdiction/venue work for copyright? Thanks.

    • Helen Sedwick

      Good questions.
      By registering your copyright, you create a fixed record of your work that may be used for comparison purposes in the event of an infringement claim. If you change a few words, phrases, and typos, there is no need to re-register the work. If you change the work so much that the registered work no longer serves as a good comparison for infringement purposes, then a new registration may make sense.

      An attorney is not supposed to practice law outside the state where he or she is licensed. Where the attorney is practicing is determined by where the client is located or where the matter/case takes place. For instance, I could represent a Florida client dealing with a California business matter, but I should not represent that same client in a Florida business matter. I hope that helps.

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

        Thanks, Helen – that is exactly what I needed.

        I don’t expect to make major changes once I file for copyright – but it is very useful to know that minor changes (typos, a missing bit added, an extraneous word or phrase removed) doesn’t require refiling – it could get expensive!

        I know that if you don’t register the copyright, your ability to sue for damages is very restricted, so a $35 registration fee is a wise investment for works which take a long time to write.

        As for finding an attorney, finding one in the right state may be problematic, depending on ‘where the matter/case takes place.’ Would that be, in a copyright infringement case, the location of the plaintiff? It could get tricky.

        Thanks again. Very timely information, as it turns out.


        • Helen Sedwick

          Alicia, Hopefully you will never have to deal with this situation. But for an infringement case, you would start with an attorney in your state.

          • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

            Thank you!

            I don’t expect to deal with this situation – but I still believe copyrights should be registered. I have one already – the process is very simple online, and once you have an account (Library of Congress IIRC), subsequent registrations are even simpler.

  9. Jo Michaels

    Contacting Amazon sounds good and all, but they won’t do a damned thing about copyright infringement unless it’s on Amazon.com. I tried. They told me it was my responsibility to get the offending material removed (and my book was on KDP Select at the time). Furthermore, if the download site is international, there’s not much you can do about it period.

    • Helen Sedwick

      Jo, You are correct. Amazon has control over Amazon’s sites only. There is not much they can do about other sites. Unlike a traditional publisher, Amazon does not take on any enforcement role.

      • Eve

        I noticed 1 important thing about Amazon and e-books. EACH one I published there has been stolen. It never happened with Smashwords f.e. and some more platforms.
        The situation became better when I:
        – never again let for the ‘Landing’ option,
        – changed the prices of my all e-books on 0.99, making the printed books in higher price.

        Amazon has in itself the system attracting thefts because of some loopholes,
        do not be nice /stupid in fact/ about their tools promoting your e-books, it doesn’t make sense,
        as I read, heard and was observing at Amazon is many fake writers, just hunting for not careful writer or the absolute beginner.

        After, literally a few persons tried to ‘steal’ my printed books but it was too hard for them! They have to scale a cover image taken from e-book and next claim that printed book they own is used, in very poor condition :D
        I think it’s clear for all of you – some re-sellers are not honest, some e-book thefts also.
        Finally I am publishing at Amazon printed books in format NOT legal for re-selling and e-books with good unique content somewhere else.

  10. Russell Phillips

    Is there any benefit to to a non-US author registering their copyright in the US? Is it even possible?

    • Helen Sedwick

      Russell, the copyright in a work is registered in its “country of origin.”

      In the days when writings were distributed in print, this generally meant the country where the work was first published, or where it was created if unpublished. In today’s internet world where work can be released worldwide, there is some confusion. But I would register the work in the country where is was created.

      Under international treaties, a writer’s copyright will be recognized and protected across boundaries.

      • Russell Phillips

        Thanks Helen, that’s what I thought, but every time I read the advice to register a copyright with the US Copyright Office, I get a slight twinge of doubt.

        There’s no official mechanism for registering in the UK, though there are private companies that will “register” a copyright. When you look deeper, by “register” they mean provide an independent witness and record of the work. I have no idea if that would be of any use or not if proof of copyright was required.

        By the way, apologies for the sharp tone in my question. It was intended to be a simple question, but re-reading it, it looks rather confrontational. It was early here, and I hadn’t had my coffee :/

        • Helen Sedwick

          Russell, I didn’t take your tone as sharp at all. It was to the point, which I like.



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