You have spent a lot of time, effort, and money creating the perfect website for your business. You researched the best layouts, paid for a custom website, commissioned custom graphics, and regularly add your own unique content.
THEN, you find out that someone copied you…not just one blog post or one photo, but your entire website. What can you do?
Let’s start with what the law protects from copying or infringement, and then delve into what your options are to enforce any legal protection.
Is Your Website Protected
The easy answer here is ‘yes’, but, of course, there are legal intricacies that may complicate this ‘easy’ answer.
In general, content is automatically copyrighted upon creation, and the copyright is owned by the creator of the content. Thus, the second your website is developed, it is automatically protected under copyright law. This is true whether you register with the U.S. Copyright Office or not, but registration can afford additional protections. Further, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) specifically protects online content from infringement.
Content that is protected by copyright cannot be reproduced without the permission of the owner. If the copyright is violated, the owner of the copyright has several courses of action available to remedy the situation.
Ownership of copyright seems like it should be easy to determine, but what happens when a work is collaborated on, such as a website? The answer to this question will largely depend on what, if any, agreements were made about ownership before the creation of the content.
If you created the specific content or purchased the right to use the content, then you own the copyright. If you collaborated with another on the content, you may not own the copyright! Some examples of when ownership may be sticky:
- You contract an outside company to develop the technical side and layout of the website. You may have signed an agreement stating that one party owns the copyright. If an agreement is in place, then the outside company owns the copyright for the technical aspects.
- You contracted with a graphic artist to create graphics for your website. Again, you may have agreed that one party will hold the copyright to content, but if no such agreement exists than the artist holds the copyright.
Copyright ownership will most likely depend on any agreement entered into before the creation of the content. However, no matter who owns the copyright, it is still protected from being copied without permission.
If you have created a brand for your business and trademarked it (e.g., your custom logo) and that has also made it onto the copycat website, you may have further legal protection. Trademark infringement is the unauthorized use of a trademark in a way that is likely to cause confusion about the good/service. A trademark MUST be applied for, unlike a copyright.
So, You Found a Copycat Website
You may have stumbled upon a copycat website or someone may have asked you a question about the connection to your business. Or maybe you have proactively set up Google alerts or use a service to alert you to copycat content. Any way you found it, you found it. So, now what do you do about it?
What Are Your Options?
- Ask them to stop
An informal email or phone call to the owner of the copycat website asking them to take it down may be enough in some situations. Sometimes, people simply don’t know that they can’t use the content, and they will fix the situation without any issue.
- Cease and Desist Letter
If you want to take steps that are a little more formal than a simple emailed request, a cease and desist letter may be a good option for you.
What is a cease and desist letter? It is a formal letter that requests that the recipient of the letter stops doing a certain action and continues to do so indefinitely. For example, if someone is copying your website, the letter would ask them to remove any content that has been copied and never re-post/re-use it without permission.
What do you include in a cease and desist letter?
- State the issue IN DETAIL.
- State what you want done IN DETAIL.
- State a deadline.
- State the legal repercussion for missing that deadline.
Cease and desist letters sound formal enough that the copycat may be scared into taking the content down when a more informal approach may not have done the trick. A cease and desist letter coming from an attorney can be even more effective in regards to the ‘scare factor’. However, even if the letter doesn’t accomplish its goal, it will show that you took steps to remedy the situation if you end up in court later.
- DMCA Takedown Notice
A DMCA Takedown Notice can be used to request that content being used without your permission be taken down. This request is sent to the website’s internet service host and must include six specific items as delineated by the DMCA.
The request may be complied with, responded to with a counter-notice, or ignored. If it isn’t complied with right off the bat, then a court case might be required to get it taken down.
For more information on the specifics of Takedown Notices see here.
Whatever method you choose to pursue, make sure that you document everything. Take screenshots of the copycat website, keep copies of any letters (informal or formal) with postmarks, pay extra for delivery confirmation, etc.
That way if you end up in court you will have a wealth of evidence to back up your case.