Dealing with “Friendly” Copyright Infringement

Blogging, microblogging and social networking have given more people than ever the ability to set up their own corner of the Web. By lowering the time and knowledge barriers to setting up a page for themselves, anyone can do it in just a few moments.

While this has mostly been a power for good, giving a voice to content creators who otherwise wouldn’t have a means to reach a large audience, it has also had its share of drawbacks. Though this site has well-documented how this growth has caused a rise in plagiarism and deliberate content misuse, it is also causing a rise in “friendly” infringement, bloggers and social networking users infringing copyright without meaning any harm.

These infringements are tricky to deal with. While spammers and plagiarists can be handled brutally without any issues, treating these cases in a harsh manner is rarely the correct way to solve the problem. Not only does it open the door for new drama, but can actually backfire and hurt legitimate sharing of your work.

So how should you handle these cases? Here’s a quick look at my suggestions.

The Problem

The problem appears to be the most apparent with images or shorter text works. Many people create blogs or profiles for sharing content they find interesting. While this is great when they link to works they like, it becomes a problem when they start copying and pasting. There are many blogs, in particular on Tumblr and Posterous, that seem to focus on sharing findings on the Web repurposed in just such a way.

While some of these blogs do a great job of obeying Creative Commons Licenses or, at the very least, providing proper attribution. Many do not. Some simply have a blanket statement saying that the works are not theirs and are owned by the respective copyright holders. Others still just simply label themselves as a blog about things the owner found and make no mention of copyright or ownership at all.

To be clear, these sites can be great if they link to and excerpt content, both creating great blogs and helping content creators out, but the widespread copying and pasting does nothing to support the authors, especially when it comes without attribution. The problem is that the creators of these sites don’t see anything wrong with their blogs, they see it as merely sharing what they like, but they are hurting the authors and artists by competing with them for search engine attention, causing confusion on authorship and doing nothing to drive viewers to the people who made the work.

The most vulnerable content seems to be either photographs/images or short-form text works such as poems. It seems the longer the work or the more effort required to copy it, the less it fits in with these kinds of blogs and the less likely people are to feel good about copying it. Videos are rarely copied as it is easier to embed them legally, but there is a burgeoning use of audio on these sites as music blogs become more popular. Some of the content is embedded legally though much of it is not.

As the recent Blogspot cases have shown, sometimes labels and blog hosts have a hard time telling the difference.

That controversy further highlights why these cases are so tricky to deal with.

Why It’s Tricky

These situations are tricky because, unlike spammers or plagiarists, these sites are not trying to deceive anyone. Though they are infringing the copyright of and hurting original artists, at least in many cases, treating them the same as a spammer creates some serious risks.

There are three risks in approaching these cases to consider:

  1. Backlash: Responding too harshly may result in a backlash from the blogger. Though this will not create a problem in most cases, it does create new drama and may result in you being put in a less-than-favorable light. These sites often do a great job making themselves out to be the victim.
  2. Fear of Legitimate Reuse: If you earn a reputation for handling reuse too harshly, those who want to make legitimate use of your content, if you allow it, may be frightened off. This can hurt your marketing and other efforts.
  3. Burning Bridges: Many of these bloggers can be great promotional engines for content creators. Responding too harshly to misuse can burn some important bridges before they are built. As such, it is important to find ways to encourage legitimate use while remaining at least somewhat cooperative.

In short, when you are dealing with these types of sites, you are going from a world where the sympathies are solely on your side to one where the loyalties are at least slightly more divided. This may or may not be right depending on your viewpoint, but it is the reality of the situation.

How to Handle Them

As is probably becoming clear, you need to approach these cases with a more gentle hand when possible, especially if you allow and encourage reuse of your content with attribution.

Though stern cease and desist letters or DMCA notices may be right for spammers and confirmed plagiarists, it’s a dangerous approach to take in these cases for the reasons above. Instead, I recommend a more personable one.

  1. Contact the Blogger Directly: Send a personal letter to the site admin, if possible, and ask them to either attribute the work, excerpt it and/or remove it. This letter doesn’t have to be threatening, but can remind the person that it is a violation of copyright law and not within the bounds of your license. The emphasis, however, should be on being polite and cooperative.
  2. Get More Stern: If you don’t get a reply or the response isn’t satisfactory, get more stern if needed. In most cases, this isn’t necessary but give peace a chance to work even if things are off to a rough start.
  3. File a Takedown if Needed: That being said, don’t get bogged down. If the person becomes combative or a few emails don’t solve the problem, don’t waste your time and simply file a takedown notice. In my experience, only a tiny fraction of these cases reach this point but if a case does you should not get bogged down with it.

If you try this approach and can honestly say that you gave the person every chance to rectify the situation, then it is unlikely anything too bad will come of it.

If you do your part and try to be the better person, even if things do go sour, you’ll be in a stronger position and the other person is much less likely to create problems down the road.

Bottom Line

In the end, there’s nothing in this that isn’t what one would consider good conflict resolution in general. It’s best, when possible, to try to resolve disputes face-to-face and amicably when possible. Though some injustices need a harsher response, it is usually better for everyone when they can be avoided. Sites and profiles such as these, are cases where avoiding conflict is both possible and, usually, the best approach.

Basically, what you have to do is tailor your response to every situation that you face and drop the idea that one-size-fits-all when it comes to copyright disputes. Not all infringements or infringers are equal, making it important to not use a nuke when a handshake would do just fine.

If you can avoid that, you’ll find yourself with a great deal less copyright drama on your hands and that even people with different copyright views will respect your actions. That, in turn, can go a long way to healing the much deeper divides on the Web and start bringing about real solutions.

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