Content Theft: A Guide for Community Admins

When it comes to matters of content theft, administrators at community sites face a very different set of challenges. Whether the site is a forum, a wiki or a collaborative blog, the content is valuable, but it is also difficult to protect.

The problem is that the community admin, the person usually in the best position to deal with any content theft, has no rights or control over the work on the site. Even the most liberal of copyright licenses do not give the admin copyright control over the work and, thus, they can not determine where else the work is displayed.

The decision about how and if to battle content theft on such sites does not rest in the hands of any one person, but rather, in the hands of the users, a group that can easily number into the hundreds or the thousands.

However, a community site is no different from an individual blog or company home page, the content is still crucial to the future of the site as it attracts new members, builds search engine traffic and is the basis for contextual advertising. Furthermore, many members will not participate in a site if they know that posting there almost certainly means their hard work will be ripped off.

Protecting it is still important, but doing so is a much greater challenge.

Who’s Copyright is it Anyway?

Since transferring a copyright requires a written contract signed by the two parties copyright holder (Thank you Aaron for catching the error), the simple act of posting a work to a forum or a wiki does not cause the copyright to transfer with it. Thus, the user retains control over the copyright, though he or she does allow the site to display the work, and can decide where and if the work can be displayed elsewhere.

This means that only the user can say no to an infringement and only the user, or an agent authorized to act on their behalf, can file a DMCA notice over such an infringement.

This means that, if a forum or wiki is being scraped or otherwise plagiarized, it is up to the individual users to file complaints with the host to get the work removed. However, as any forum administrator will know, getting users to act in a coordinated manner, especially when many may have differing views about the infringement, can be nearly impossible.

Fortunately, it is not necessary, nor even desirable, to bring all members on board in such an event. Instead, there are other steps that can be taken to ensure that the forum or wiki is, overall, very well protected.

Methods for Success

Dealing with this form of content theft requires a large dose of prevention and advance planning. Getting yourself ready and having your users prepared can make all of the difference when and if the need to act should arise.

  1. Prepare Your Users: Let your users know that the danger is out there, offer them information how to search for plagiarism of their work and give them the tools to handle any incidents that do arise. Also, encourage them to go to you or another moderator if they discover any such theft, especially if it involves other work on the site as well.
  2. Participate in Your Site: Many administrators don’t contribute to their own forums, however, if you participate and any work of yours is scraped or copied, you then have a direct copyright interest and can act yourself to stop it.
  3. Rally Key Members: Nearly every forum has moderators and/or key members that are responsible for a large percentage of the posting. If you get their cooperation in advance and touch base with them about where else they post their works, you can not only be more certain of infringement but, if needed, even get them to let you act as a designated agent, enabling you to file notices on their behalf.
  4. Disable or Truncate RSS Feeds: Forums, unlike blogs, generally have little use for RSS feeds. Most members use internal tools to monitor what is new on the site. If your forum software automatically generates RSS feeds, it is probably wise to disable them or convert them to headline-only.
  5. Spot Check Content: As with any site, it pays to occasionally spot check the content posted there, especially the more popular works, to see if it has been plagiarized. Even if you can not act on it right then, you can notify the original user and advise them on what they can do.

The bottom line is that, as a community site admin, you have to be knowledgeable about these issues and be prepared, if needed, to offer guidance to your users to help them deal with these matters.

After all, stopping plagiarism of your users’ work is not just in their best interest, but yours as well. The more unique content your site has, the more it can grow and tighter-knit it will be.

Conclusions

Being a community administrator is very hard work. Even a community of modest size can create a lot of headaches. Running such a site requires being a parent, a mediator, a guide, a teacher, a protector and a motivator.

As a former community admin myself, I know how challenging this can be, especially when controversy seems to be eating the site alive.

Copyright infringement of user work is just another worry to add to the already long list of concerns. Depending on the nature of your community, it may not be a problem worth much worry, on other sites, such as literature forums, it may be of a very high priority.

However, it is always worth thinking about and having a plan in place.

Because, as bad as having your community ripped off can be, it is much worse if there is no plan of action. If you have a strategy, you can quickly get back to worrying about spammers, trolls, flame wars and the other problems that come with running a community-based site.

Then again, perhaps worrying about copyright infringement isn’t such a bad deal after all…

11 Responses to Content Theft: A Guide for Community Admins

  1. Patrick says:

    Nice job, Jonathan.

  2. Aaron says:

    Just to clarify. Under ch. 204(a) only the grantor must sign. The grantee is not required to execute the writing.This is not legal advice. Please seek competent counsel.

  3. Aaron says:

    Just to clarify. Under ch. 204(a) only the grantor must sign. The grantee is not required to execute the writing.

    This is not legal advice. Please seek competent counsel.

  4. JB says:

    Aaron, Thanks for the heads up, I fixed the mistake. I'm not sure why I just now saw your comment in my inbox but I did. However, it has been fixed. Perhaps with all of the running around I've neglected my comment inbox some. I am sorry.

  5. JB says:

    Aaron,

    Thanks for the heads up, I fixed the mistake. I’m not sure why I just now saw your comment in my inbox but I did. However, it has been fixed.

    Perhaps with all of the running around I’ve neglected my comment inbox some. I am sorry.

  6. John Marta says:

    I'm sorry, could you please clarify? In this article you're suggesting that community managers don't hold the copyright for the content posted by their users, and therefore cannot determine where it could be displayed.So in a nutshell, if WordPress received an email from you saying another WordPress user had stolen your content, what should WordPress do if they can't determine where that content belongs? Indeed, how could they even know if it's your content or not? Maybe you're just making some story up, they can't tell, plus they have millions of users, it's probably too time consuming to check each case individually.

  7. JB says:

    John,I'm sorry for the confusion, we're talking about two different situations though.The question here is one of where the infringement is taking place. If the infringement is taking place on the community site, the administrator has a responsibility as per the DMCA to remove the material if they are properly notified. You can read more about that in the "Contacting the Host" page.If the infringement is taking place on a site outside of the admin's control, such as a spam blog, the administrator can not do anything since they do not hold the copyright to the material. The DMCA requires that either the copyright holder or a designated agent file the notice.The DMCA does not require the site to make a determination of ownership. If the notice is proper, they have to act. However, there is a counter-notice provision to get falsely removed works restored and severe civil penalties offered to anyone who misuses the DMCA. The law basically says that the admin does not have the responsibility to determine who owns a work, just one to respond to proper notices of infringement that take place on their servers. Yes, the system has been abused a few times (search this site for Michael Crook) but it almost never worked out well for the person misusing it.Hope that clarifies the situation! Let me know if you have any further questions.

  8. John Marta says:

    I’m sorry, could you please clarify?

    In this article you’re suggesting that community managers don’t hold the copyright for the content posted by their users, and therefore cannot determine where it could be displayed.

    So in a nutshell, if WordPress received an email from you saying another WordPress user had stolen your content, what should WordPress do if they can’t determine where that content belongs?

    Indeed, how could they even know if it’s your content or not? Maybe you’re just making some story up, they can’t tell, plus they have millions of users, it’s probably too time consuming to check each case individually.

  9. JB says:

    John,

    I’m sorry for the confusion, we’re talking about two different situations though.

    The question here is one of where the infringement is taking place. If the infringement is taking place on the community site, the administrator has a responsibility as per the DMCA to remove the material if they are properly notified. You can read more about that in the “Contacting the Host” page.

    If the infringement is taking place on a site outside of the admin’s control, such as a spam blog, the administrator can not do anything since they do not hold the copyright to the material. The DMCA requires that either the copyright holder or a designated agent file the notice.

    The DMCA does not require the site to make a determination of ownership. If the notice is proper, they have to act. However, there is a counter-notice provision to get falsely removed works restored and severe civil penalties offered to anyone who misuses the DMCA.

    The law basically says that the admin does not have the responsibility to determine who owns a work, just one to respond to proper notices of infringement that take place on their servers. Yes, the system has been abused a few times (search this site for Michael Crook) but it almost never worked out well for the person misusing it.

    Hope that clarifies the situation! Let me know if you have any further questions.

  10. John Marta says:

    Wow! Thank you for this detailed answer! Brilliant!

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