Of all the areas of plagiarism and copyright infringement that I track, small business plagiarism is]one of the fastest growing types of plagiarism to be found, if not the fastest. Small business plagiarism and copyright infringement centers around one business, usually an upstart, illegally using content or creations from another to build their site, distribute in marketing materials or otherwise run/promote their business. These cases are very frustrating to small business owners who, without a lot of resources, are often not able to take offenders to court even though they struggle to compete against others using their own content against them. However, they're often equally frustrating for the infringers as well, who often spent money on design and content production for materials that turned out to be lifted. So why is small business plagiarism on the rise and what can be done about it? The answers to those questions are complicated, but important for small business owners to know. Why Small Business Plagiarism is Increasing There's no single factor that can explain why companies are seeing a rise in small business plagiarism and copyright infringement. First, more and more people are trying their hand at starting a small business, especially sole proprietorships. This has been largely fueled by a down economy and people being laid off from jobs and unable to find a new one. It's a low-risk way to try to find work and generate income. Second, creating a website is no longer optional. Unlikely other down economic periods that saw a similar boon in entrepreneurship, having a website is no longer optional for even a purely offline company. A site is as essential as a business card. These factors are combining to create a climate where thousands of businesses are building sites every month, most of which without the time, interest or skills to do a thorough job on their own and the little money to hire someone else. Of course, the problem goes well beyond websites and involves other marketing material, including fliers and brochures, and sometimes even involves the content the business works with and even sells, such as contracts, guides, tutorials, etc. In short, just as with with other forms of plagiarism, copying and pasting can be a shortcut to to getting a business online and running, but it can be a very dangerous one. Because, while it's easier than ever to plagiarize and there's more motivation to do so, it's also easier to track content online and, once again, there's much more reason to do so. Discovering Small Business Plagiarism Though some businesses are spending time and resources tracking their content, either by themselves or through outside services, most do not. It seems most don't even consider the possibility that one could steal their content as a shortcut to becoming a successful competitor. However, most businesses are increasingly SEO aware. They understand how important search traffic is to their bottom line and check the results pages regularly. Since most small businesses thrive on long-tail keywords with a limited number of competitors, they know who they are against and how they are faring. So, when a competitor with the same content crops up, it's often pretty obvious, sounding alarm bells. However, often times, it's not a direct competitor that does the lifting. For example, a regional business, such as lawn care, may not notice if a competitor from another town infringes their copy. While this is less damaging to the business that is being infringed, it can still create problems, especially if the lifted content still ranks well for keywords and terms relevant to the original site. As a result, businesses are getting a lot more vigilant about these issues and are taking action against copyright infringing content. This primarily includes DMCA takedowns, especially since few small businesses register their content with the U.S. Copyright Office, thus making a lawsuit impractical. Still, for a small business, having their site being shut down and being sent back to the drawing board is often bad enough. But while it might be a fitting punishment for those who knowingly infringe, part of the problem is that many thought they were doing the right thing. The Freelancer Problem One of the more unfortunate elements of this problem is that many of the infringing small businesses have little to do with their site. Without skill or knowledge in building a Web presence, they contract that part of their business out to a design firm, which often in turn farms the content out to freelancers. The problem is that all of this is done with budget in mind and little else. This encourages the hiring of cheap labor that does poor quality work and, often times, lifts much of their product. However, in those situations, it's the buyer that suffers. They are sent back to square one with their content and out of the money they paid. The freelancer is often long gone, either untouchable by the law or effectively disappeared. This makes it crucial for small business owners to think about both sides of the coin and learn how to protect themselves both from being infringed and from being the ones who are infringing. Preventing the Problem On that note, here's what you need to do as a small business owner to protect yourself from others who might infringe your content. Register Your Work with the USCO: If you can, register your site and all relevant creations with the U.S. Copyright Office. This greatly improves your legal position if your content is infringed. Track Relevant SERPS: Find out what keywords most people find your site through and watch those results, including those lower than you. If you see something suspicious or new, investigate it. Monitor Your Content: Consider monitoring all relevant content either through hand searches or a monitoring service such as those provided by Copyscape, Plagium or other services. Learn the DMCA Process: I have a guide on the DMCA process here. If you don't want to bother with it, consider using a DMCA service such as the one I assist with at WhoIsHostingThis. Resolve Issues Quickly: The faster you detect and stop a potential issue, the less harm that comes from it and the less harm it does to you and, if the other side is innocent in the infringement, the less harm your action causes them. On the flip side, if you're the one building a site or other materials to use, here are the steps to take to protect yourself against becoming an infringer. Take Charge of Your Content: First, write or create as much as you can yourself. What you can't create yourself, do your own work and secure your own licenses. You shouldn't have to worry about what you do yourself. Use Good Contractors and Check Behind Them: If you have to use a contractor, make sure to hire a reputable one and double check their work for plagiarism. The tools listed above can help with that easily. Respond to Complaints Quickly: If someone does complain, be quick and decisive with your responses. Remove infringing material without hesitation and don't make the situation any worse. Showing good faith and cooperation can make a big difference. In short, if you do these things, most likely the copyright issues you and your business face, at least online, will be minor and easily dealt with. However, without vigilance, plagiarism and copyright infringement could become a serious headache. Bottom Line Currently, about 75% of the copyright cases I handle through my consulting services involve a small business in one way or another. Either a small business is being infringed, doing the infringing or, in many cases, both. While this isn't a huge surprise as my practice largely targets small businesses, that number has been steadily increasing even as my client base hasn't shifted drastically. Clearly, spammes, scrapers and article authors are no longer the huge enemy they once were, instead, the problem is coming from competitors and it's an issue that isn't going to go away any time soon. Sadly, this may be the new face of plagiarism on the Web for a long time to come.
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