Stealing Content Is Very Stupid (Plus: How To Protect Your Original Content)

Tom Dempster

Tom Dempster

You’ve researched your topic. You’ve produced a killer piece of content. You’ve put the hours in. Your article performs well. And then you find that someone has taken your hard work, grabbed it straight from your website, and published it word-for-word on their own site.

This is all about stolen content – why it makes no sense to do it in the first place, and what you can do if you fall victim to it.

If you have purchased a VHS or DVD in the last twenty years, there’s a very good chance you are familiar with this much-memed video which frequently appeared before the main feature (and unlike the DVD trailers for upcoming movies, you couldn’t skip past it):

So, you wouldn’t steal a car, a handbag, a television, or a movie. Piracy – it’s a crime.

You know what else is a crime? Plagiarism.

Plagiarism isn’t just illegal, but it also negatively affects everyone involved, from adversely affecting a website’s SEO performance, to taking up unnecessary time and effort to actually resolve it.

In this article, we’re going to look at the obvious downsides of plagiarism for both thieves and victims. Although we will briefly touch on the issue of duplicate content, this article is specifically focusing on stolen, scraped or plagiarized content. By the end of it, you’ll understand precisely why you shouldn’t steal content from other websites – and how you can protect your own content from online thieves.

A real world example of content theft

There is actually a short story which led to this article.

Towards the end of last year, we conducted a backlink audit for one of our clients. As part of our ongoing SEO services, we regularly monitor and analyze a website’s backlink profile to identify if there are toxic backlinks which may have a negative impact on the site’s overall SEO performance. A toxic backlink is usually from a low-authority spam website, and often needs to be disavowed using Google Search Console.

As we were conducting our audit, we found that one website had several referring pages to our client’s content. The website belonged to a business (we’ll call them Business B for ease) operating in a different location but the same niche. The website was relatively new, with very few referring domains itself. 

So initially, there was no cause for alarm. After all, backlinks from relevant websites are a good thing, right?

As we looked in more depth, something became worryingly clear. We started to see several similarities in the anchor text Business B was using to point to our client’s website. Upon further investigation, it became clear that Business B was not citing our client’s content as a source. Instead, Business B was simply copying and pasting our client’s content and posting it on their own blog under their own name. There was no disputing this – Business B’s articles had been posted months after the originals, and leaving the original anchor text (designed as internal links on our client’s site) was a footprint which brought this to our attention.

We contacted Business B and asked them to remove the articles, citing the illegality of this practice (it is a crime to reproduce or duplicate copyrighted material). They did remove the articles, but not before we had also noticed that they were also stealing content from other websites in this niche. We reached out to the affected website owners to inform them of this, advising them to reach out to Business B to resolve the matter.

This is a prime example of stolen content.

content stolen from computer

The negative impact of stolen content (for the thief)

Of course, we shouldn’t have to explain why you shouldn’t do this. But aside from the obviously questionable ethics of stealing content, there are actually three reasons why pressing ahead could actively harm your business.

  1. It’s bad for your brand. If you’re publishing content on your website, it should reflect the values of your business – not someone else’s. As we’ve talked about on numerous occasions, your blog content has to express the thoughts and opinions of your brand. It’s a great opportunity. Why would you waste it by copying and pasting content from another website? The lack of authenticity will be evident to your visitors. Without authenticity, your message will struggle to resonate. If your message doesn’t resonate, you won’t win new customers. And the cycle continues.

  2. Negative SEO repercussions. Here’s where we encounter duplicate content in this piece. If a piece of content is published in multiple places across the web, search engines can find it hard to know which URL to rank (Moz has a great explainer on duplicate content). But if you’re grabbing content, it is likely to be from a reliable, trustworthy source which already appears towards the top of search results. If you have to resort to stealing content, then the overall SEO strength of their website is likely to far exceed your own. By copying their content and passing it off as your own, you are literally wasting your own time. Nobody is going to look at your piece. It won’t outrank an already successful article on a website with superior authority and trust.

  3. Legal ramifications. There might be a perception in some quarters that the Internet is some kind of unregulated free-for-all where anyone can write anything – even if that content has been directly lifted from someone else. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Copyright law affords protection to the original author for digital content in the same way as offline works in books or newspapers are protected. Followed through to its natural conclusion, if you refused to remove the stolen content from your website, you could be the subject of litigation. That could lead to reputational and financial harm for your business. 

The negative impact of stolen content (for the victim)

As the video at the beginning of this article says, piracy is not a victimless crime. The same is true for plagiarism. Here’s why you should pay attention to the possibility of your content being stolen:

  1. Potential negative impact on your brand. In the real world example we discussed above, our major concern was actually not the SEO effects on our client. We were primarily concerned that, because the articles had been copied verbatim, several references were included which mentioned our client and their services. We became concerned that our client’s name and brand would be associated with a low-quality website which did not reflect their qualities, values or mission statement. If you have an impeccable reputation, the last thing you want is a nobody riding your coattails and diminishing that hard-earned trust.

  2. Negative impact on SEO. There is a duplicate content aspect to consider here, where search engines may not always recognize the original version of your content. Further down, we’ll come on to ways to protect your content, but it can undercut your SEO and content creation efforts when the information is being duplicated elsewhere on the Internet.

  3. Frustration and expended energy. Let’s be honest – this is one of those things that you just don’t want to deal with. It’s an unnecessary hassle. As a business owner or marketing team, you want to get to work on producing great content and driving new business via your website. You don’t want to spend time, effort and resources having to deal with an inferior website that has duplicated your hard work. 

How to protect your content

There are a couple of ways to protect your content against scrapers or other websites that maliciously steal your work.

Firstly, you should make sure that your content includes a self-referential ‘rel=canonical’ tag. This points directly to your own URL and provides an added layer of security against content scrapers, as it instructs search engines that your page was the original source. If a scraper lifts the entirety of the HTML in their efforts, they will bring the ‘rel=canonical’ tag with them, and your content will be reflected as the original work.

It is useful to add a Copyright in the footer of your website (although it should be noted that even if you don’t have this, you may still be able to prove that you were the original author of the content). Adding a Terms of Use policy can provide additional protection and offers further clarity about how your work should be attributed or credited.

If you want to check if your work has been published elsewhere, you can run your web pages through a tool like Copyscape. This will highlight any duplicates in existence elsewhere on the web. Alternatively, you can also run a scan on DMCA.com (you get two free scans per month), or you could set up a Google Alert for the content on your most popular pages and periodically check for duplicates.

Above: Copyscape Homepage

How to resolve a stolen content or duplicate content issue

If you identify your content is appearing elsewhere on the web, it’s important to know that you are far from powerless in this situation. 

The very first step is to contact the webmaster of the offending site. It might seem hard to appeal to the better judgment of someone who has brazenly stolen your work, but you might be surprised. Some people legitimately don’t realize that it is actually illegal; others may feign ignorance but take down the content anyway.

If that doesn’t work, you can submit a request through Google Search Console for the pages to be de-indexed from the search engine. However, if you have a situation where multiple pages have been copied, this might not be the ideal solution – you have to submit pages individually through this tool.

As a next step, you can also contact the offending website’s host to alert them to the duplication (you can find out who hosts a website at ‘Who Is Hosting This?’). You should set out the situation with clear facts. What was the title of your article? When did you publish the original? When was it re-published by the offending website? Reproducing content without permission is usually a breach of the web host’s Terms of Service, and many hosts are usually quick to act on any such complaints.

Finally – and it is pretty rare, although not unprecedented, for things to reach this stage – you could consider litigation. You will need to hire an attorney who specializes in copyright law. This might seem like a drastic step, but if you believe that you have a legitimate case and have suffered damages as a result of the theft, this is an avenue you can consider. There is obviously a cost consideration here, not to mention the time and effort of legal proceedings.

Evidently, each of these solutions should be weighed up based on your company’s circumstances and your available time. Although you are right to feel frustration that someone has copied your work, it’s probably not wise to spend days scouring the web to remove every instance of a low-traffic blog article from 2012. On the other hand, what if you find that a competitor is copying your work and starting to gain momentum as a result? What if you’re an artist who finds that someone is reproducing your images and cashing in at your expense? In that case, the time investment is obviously worth it to protect yourself, your work and your business.

In conclusion

So, with plenty of dangers and virtually no upsides, why do people still insist on stealing content? 

Well, why does anyone do anything they shouldn’t? Cutting corners can appear convenient. It is easy. Many people believe they can do what they want without consequence. 

There’s obviously a pretty simple message to any would-be thieves – don’t do it. It’s a waste of your time, and of everybody else’s. Google and other search engines are becoming wiser every day at weeding out irrelevant, low-value content. Copying someone else’s work is the epitome of low-value.

My takeaway here is aimed primarily at content creators. Whether you’re a cartoonist, a copywriter, a blogger, or basically doing anything creative which results in your work being published online – you have to know what to do and how to right the wrong of stolen content. The tips in this article should go some way to helping you achieve this

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