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When it comes to copyright protection online, most people either think of piracy issues, such as file sharing or online streaming, or content theft from blogs and news sites, such as spam blogs and online plagiarism.

However, one of the biggest targets for copyright infringement on the Web is online stores, regardless of whether they sell virtual goods or tangible ones.

The reason is simple: Money.

Online shopping is not just a rapidly-growing business, it’s also becoming much more accessible. New tools and services make it easier than ever to set up online shops but, just like any other site, there’s still a need for great content.

Unfortunately, for many stores, they opt to neither create that content nor pull it from legitimate sources. Instead, they choose to steal it from their competitors, literally enriching themselves off of the work of others.

However, there are many ways stores can and should fight back against this problem, especially if they are willing to be proactive in their battle.

What is Being Stolen and by Whom?

Stealing Cookies ImageThough online stores make their money by selling goods, to promote their products, online retailers create a large amount of content including:

  1. Product Images – Photos of the products being sold. These can range from extremely plain to very creative.
  2. Descriptions – Creative descriptions that both describe the products and entire others to buy it.
  3. Metadata – Pricing, color, sizing and a variety of other metadata has to be created for many types of stores.
  4. Tutorials/Support Content – Include product FAQs, guides on how to use the products and troubleshooting information among other types of content.
  5. Store Marketing Material – Text, logos and other content that promotes the store itself including pieces about why one should purchase from there and any policies the store has.

All of this material is created at a cost, whether it’s time, money or both. However, some stores, either unable or unwilling to produce original materials, simply copy and paste the work of their competitors.

This copying and pasting can take a variety of forms. Many large sites, for example, will scrape competitors (large and small) in an effort to collect metadata about pricing for products in a bid to ensure that theirs are the lowest. While this scraping isn’t a likely copyright infringement, it can still create problems for online retailers including server issues.

The problem takes a copyright turn when, instead of scraping metadata, the infringer grabs images, text or other elements from the original site and uses it on theirs. This is possible because many online stores sell either the same or similar products, making it so that images and text from one site can be readily used on another with minimal changes.

As such, it is well worth protecting this content, not just because of the time and expense it took to create, but because competitors who plagiarize have an unfair advantage and can cause confusion in the marketplace, hurting sales.

With that in mind, here are a few things that you can do now to better protect your store’s content.

1: Create Your Own Content

While many suppliers and other intermediaries will provide you stock images, text and other content that you can use to populate your store, you use that content at your own risk.

Simply put, if you don’t create the content not only will your site look like many others out there (likely only differentiated by price) but you will be unable to do anything to stop competitors who copy and paste from you.

Since you don’t hold the copyright to anything you don’t create, you can’t take action against work created by others, even if it was copied from your domain. As such, the first step to protecting your content is to create original work that you can control.

2: Block Unwanted Bots

Distil LogoWhile there are many bots that you want on your site, such as search engine spiders, there are also many you do not want. Blocking unwanted bots will not only reduce the load on your servers, but will help prevent even non-copyright infringing scrapes of your site.

Even if a competitor never takes your text or images, there’s no reason to make it easier for them to grab your pricing information or other data.

Fortunately, not only are there many companies that specialize in blocking bad bots, but there are other steps you can take to avoid having bad bots crawl your website.

3: Watermark Your Images

watermark-toolIf you hold the copyright to your images, take the time to put a watermark on them so that your ownership of them is clear. This will not only discourage the use of those images, but ensure that they point back to you if they are reposted elsewhere.

Many visual artists are reluctant to do this for fear of taking away from the image. While that concern still holds weight with online stores, with online stores the retailer has the option of using the watermark to further their branding. They can create a style of image and watermark that work well together.

However, the watermark doesn’t have to be large or in the way, even a very small one can provide a great deal of protection if it’s not trivially cropped out. Remember, content theft is usually a crime of convenience and even a small hurdle can be enough to dissuade an infringer.

4: Check for Your Content

copyscape-logo-plainStarting with your most popular items, keep an eye out for anyone reposting either the text or images connected with it. You can find basic guides on how to find text plagiarism and how to find image plagiarism on this site.

If you’re finding matches, you’ll likely want to expand your search to other products and to any marketing material directly related to your site. The goal here is not just to spot all infringements, but to also determine how your content is being used and what you want to do about it.

You’ll likely find that these matches are a combination of spam sites, competitors and review sites/forums. Not all of these infringements will likely be worrisome though, if there are enough copycats, at least a few will likely be worthy of taking action.

5: Respond to Infringers

Finally, if you do have infringers that you wish to take action on, do so. Whether you are satisfied with a link, want the content removed or, in extreme cases, wish to file a lawsuit, take the action that you feel is appropriate.

Bear in mind though that, if you are considering a lawsuit and you are either living in or planning on suing in the United States, you will want to seek out a copyright registration for your site. Unfortunately though, that may not be practical depending upon the nature of your site.

But even if a lawsuit is off the table, you can still request removal of the content and, in most cases, get it taken down with little expense or effort. If a competitor is stealing both your content and your customers, it may be well worth the effort.

Bottom Line

When people talk about online content, they are usually speaking about blogs, news articles, videos and other content that is financed, at least in part, with ads. However, online stores have to produce a wide variety of content as well and that content is just as easily and as regularly infringed as any other.

But for online stores, the game is much more serious. Not only are the infringers likely to be direct competitors using the content to steal customers, but other challenges that can come with being infringed, including potential Google penalties, are felt much more directly.

As such, it is more important than ever for stores to be on top of how their content is being used. Otherwise, your store could find itself losing out to a plagiarist that never had to invest the time or energy into creating their own work.

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