I’ve been asked a few questions recently from VAs about how to protect your brand, website domains, copy which you’ve written etc. from plagiarisers. I thought I’d put down a little HOW TO guide, as it applies to all businesses, not just virtual assistants. As usual, this comes with my very own disclaimer; if in doubt please seek legal representation.
Protecting your Websites:
From the very off, your website poses some problems. Firstly, should you buy all the domain extensions (e.g. .com / .uk.com / .org / .biz / .co.uk / .net)? I’d say yes, if you would be bothered by someone else having the domain, you should buy it. You can always redirect the traffic to your main site, and it avoids problems with people accidentally typing .co.uk instead of .com.
One internet scam at the moment is an email which claims to own the .hk / .jap extension of your domain and be “reclaiming it” to the rightful owners because you are trying to “pass off” your business as being theirs. I’d suggest not! Report this as spam to your ISP.
When buying the domains make sure you purchase them yourself – I’ve heard a few nightmares about web designers buying the domain and then withholding it or letting it lapse.
If you create something, you automatically have copyright over it, unless it was commissioned and paid for by someone else. E.g. if you write an article, you own it; alternatively if you are commissioned to create a logo for someone and they pay you for it, the client owns the logo and you should assign copyright to them as part of the deal.
The complication arises where you have to prove that you had that idea, and when you had it and that you had no access to other materials which are also claiming copyright. So say if you wrote a song, which by a crazy coincidence is exactly the same as one by an American artist. You would need to prove when you wrote the song, and that you had no access to anywhere where it was available (e.g. no access to radio stations/internet/shops – lived the life of a hermit!!).
A good way of proving copyright is to send yourself a copy of the material by registered post and leave it sealed somewhere safe. This proves that the material in the envelope was in existence at the time the registered delivery was made. Make sure you don’t open it though!
Although copyright is automatically assigned, in order to flag to people that you consider the material to be copyrighted, you should include the © symbol on websites, marketing materials, documents etc. stating who owns it. E.g. your name, limited company, date created. For example: © Caroline Wylie 2010
If you want to register a trademark you will need to prove that you have the right to use that symbol/phrase exclusively.
You are always allowed to use your own name so even if you register a trademark as “Jane Bloggs Widget Design” and someone else is called “Jane Bloggs” you may have a problem with getting them to stop using the name. Likewise you couldn’t register “WIDGET” as a trademark name because other people will need to use it to describe their goods/services.
http://www.ipo.gov.uk/tm.htm The Patent Office will register your trademark in a specific use class according to what you do – e.g. health goods, business services, etc. They will then search to see if anyone else has registered your trademark with them, and publicise your intention to trademark so that anyone else can raise objections. After a period of time with no objections your trademark is approved and you can use the ® symbol to indicate a registered trademark. All in this process costs around £400 depending on how many categories you register in.
There’s another scam out there saying you have to register (and believe me, the documents look extremely official!). Make sure it is only registered with the Patent Office direct or through a reputable trademark lawyer.
Again registering a trademark is only one part of the battle – if someone infringes it you will need to prove they infringed it and then prosecute in the courts.
This is the legal description for when someone markets their product/service by pretending to be someone else – for example various supermarket own-brands have been had up for this, famously the makers of Penguin biscuits sued ASDA in 1997 because they were marketing their own chocolate biscuits as “Puffin” and using similar packaging/branding which meant consumers could accidentally pick up these, believing they were buying Penguins. You don’t need the brand to be protected by trademark in this case; you simply have to prove that consumers would be deceived or confused.
As unlikely as it may seem, someone may have had the exact same idea as you at around the same time. Personally, I have had experience of this when coming up with the name for my business – you see there is another Virtually Sorted who trades as a concierge service which I had no knowledge of until about 3 months into trading. My web designer walked up the stairs and showed me their website. “Tom, why have you redesigned the site? And why have we got a new domain name, I don’t remember buying that.” His answer: “I didn’t” – clunk the penny dropped. Thankfully they concentrate on personal services whilst we work with business services. And yes, we have the trademark to prove it!
I came up with the name by cutting bits of paper up and moving them round till I came up with a phrase I liked – I purposely hadn’t looked at lots of VA websites because I wanted to create something individual. There was no way I’d copied the idea.
So don’t assume that your plagiariser has been maliciously nicking your ideas – you know what they say: great minds think alike. Send a letter or email asking them to remove the content, outlining your reasons, and set a reasonable timescale for them to complete the removal. Most people will be suitably apologetic and comply, but if they have reasons for not complying, you will probably need to speak to a lawyer specialising in intellectual property rights to pursue your claim.
In terms of best practice, don’t leave yourself open to claims of plagiarism – don’t sign up to competitors newsletters/websites, don’t agree to discuss confidential information without establishing a framework, and, most of all, consider how you would feel if the roles were reversed.
A really useful tool we have found is: www.copyscape.com
This will trawl the internet for copies of your site and show you where your text has been copied. A seriously useful tool! After all, why should someone use your hard work to snag more clients for themselves?
Very quickly here is a 7 point plan to protect yourself:
- Use www.copyscape.com to check your site is not being copied. Run this check at least once per month or use their Copy Sentry alert service (about $5/month).
- Make sure that your copyright is clearly stated on your website using the © symbol your name and date it was created. This gives a visual reminder that your site is not a free content provision service!
- If you find duplicates of your site, approach the website owner either via their Contact Us page or using a Who Is domain lookup like www.whois.net. State clearly that you believe they are in breach of copyright and give them 10 working days to remove the material before you take further action.
- If you get no response, contact SVA who will block them from the organisation and also send the VA a request to have the material removed. We will also forward this request to several other VA organisations so that they block them too. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org – do not publically name-and-shame on the forum, however tempting that may be!
- Once 10 days are up if they have still not removed the offending material, send a cease and desist letter from your lawyer via registered mail.
- Contact their webhost and point out they are hosting copyright infringed material on the site.
- If all else fails, change your website copy so that their duplicate doesn’t infringe on your Google ranking.