Content Theft on Forums: What Can Be Done?

Message Board Copyright Infringement

We’ve all seen them. Internet forums built around nothing but stolen content. Photos lifted directly from Google Images, and text cut-‘n’-pasted wholesale from blogs and websites. Post after post it’s simply “Quote…”; followed by someone’s entire, copyright-protected blog entry. No permission, no link, no attribution. And sometimes the material is not even acknowledged as a quote. A blogger wouldn’t get away with this, so how come so many forums do?

Well, primarily it’s down to a law which absolves the administrators of UGC (User Generated Content) sites of responsibility for copyright infringements made by third parties using their facilities. The law states that it’s the uploader, and not necessarily the owner of the site, who is liable if copyright conditions are breached when content is added. And since most forums haven’t a clue who their uploaders are, this in practical terms means that no one is responsible. You want to try and bring a copyright-infringement case against a forum member for stealing all your photos and posting them on a message board?… Good luck with that one…

But this doesn’t mean to say that forum administrators are immune from takedown notices, or from legal action. If they refuse to remove content they’ve been directly instructed to remove by the copyright holders or a representative thereof, they can end up in serious bother, with their whole site rendered inaccessible. The law only protects site owners from the consequences of a third party’s initial decision to upload. In other words, they can’t be sued for copyright infringements they couldn’t realistically have prevented. But once a site owner is notified of a specific copyright breach, they’re obliged to act, and they have to take DMCA notices seriously.

We know from the Megaupload debacle that being a UGC site is no defence if it can be demonstrated that the administrators are complicit in deliberate, systemic theft and illegal redistribution of copyright-protected material. The seriousness of the consequences for Megaupload were hugely exaggerated by the scale of the operation, the fact that the stolen content was heavily denting commercial industry, and other legal issues, but no site is immune from copyright law.

Accordingly, forum admins will keep an eye on their boards, and some can be pretty cowardly in the way they operate. They may be very hot on removing proprietary content from known litigators such as Getty Images. They might even post notices to members stressing that such material is not to be uploaded, and when it is, they’ll act – FAST. But when it comes to more lowly image-makers or bloggers, they’ll let the content sit there indefinitely, even when they know full well it’s been posted in breach of copyright. They may well also ignore removal requests from people they don’t think are very knowledgeable and don’t see as a threat.

Looking at some forums it’s hard to see how the administrators could possibly be unaware that a huge percentage of the material on their boards is basically nicked. A law that was designed to prevent owners of sites from facing legal action for transgressions they couldn’t prevent, can end up protecting site owners who obviously do know that most of their meaningful content is ripped off. If a forum admin recognises that NO ONE is attributing images to their source, and NO ONE is observing fair use and linking back to articles, they CAN take preventative measures. They can educate members and stress rules. But so many don’t, because they know lots of users will see attribution as a hassle, and will accordingly post less, or post somewhere else, where the admins don’t give a toss.

So the law needs to get tougher on cases in which it’s inconceivable that the admins could be unaware of endemic copyright infringement within their sites. Until then, copyright holders are stuck with managing their own stolen content affairs on forums, but is it worth the hassle?

SHOULD I GET MY CONTENT REMOVED?

Only you can answer this, and whether or not it’s worth bothering will depend on a variety of factors. One of the most encouraging facets in the progress of the Web is the way search engines have started to devalue forums full of secondhand articles. In the past, the status and particularly the size of forums has allowed such stolen content to outrank the original post. But today, unless there’s something pretty seriously wrong with your blog or website, it’s highly unlikely that your original post will be outranked by a duplicate on a message board.

Google even introduced a report option for use in cases where your original work is being outranked in search by a duplicate. So they’re clearly taking the prosperity of original work seriously, and their marking down of junk sites (a classification that seems to be including increasing numbers of forums) looks set to become more severe as time goes on. That’s good news for creators of original content, and bad news for poorly run, waste-of-server-space forums.

Additionally, some UGC sites operate a Black Hole system in which content gets buried out of sight within a very short time. This can mean, particularly if Google doesn’t rate the forum and the board’s membership is limited, that the ongoing reach of the duplicate post is minimal, and it barely seems worth the bother of getting it removed. In some cases it literally is just a matter of principle.

But if you start to let too many examples of copyright theft go because you don’t consider it worth the bother of issuing the removal requests, word can feasibly spread that you’re a soft touch, and then it may not only be inconsequential forums that start to take your work and use it unattributed. One forum I know of literally has a list of content sources with aggressive policies on content thieves (so therefore not to be trifled with), and content sources who tend not to act (so therefore basically okay to steal from). Needless to say, if you end up listed as a soft touch, the problem of content theft is likely to get worse.

Something that hasn’t improved on the Internet is public ignorance. Masses of people still wrongly believe that just because they’ve seen something posted ten times it’s now public property and they can do what the hell they like with it. At least by getting your work removed you nip things in the bud, and fewer people are likely to perceive that your post is “public domain”.

TAKING ACTION

Many content theft victims who do decide to take action will choose not to ask for removal, but instead to request a link back to their sites. Whether this is a good idea will depend on the size, type, quality and status of the forum, and the amount of your work that’s been taken. If it’s a huge site with a massive membership and clout on the search engines, and perhaps just a section of your post with a photo has been re-posted, getting a backlink added could mean a lot of traffic to your original post, AND potentially an SEO boost to your own site. On the other hand, some forums have such grim status with Google that backlinks from them can DAMAGE your SEO.

It’s tempting to be very principled in these cases and demand that your illegally re-posted work is removed as a knee-jerk reaction. But frankly, a big forum won’t even notice your material has gone so you won’t be hurting or spiting them. Put your own interests before your desire to punish others. But be careful, when asking for a backlink, to look out for “nofollow” link policies or other tricks which a site can use to limit your benefit. I recently found an RSS scraper site hosting whole posts of mine, with ‘backlinks’ beneath them. When tested, however, the ‘backlinks’ actually led to pages on their own site. There are some very devious and badly behaved individuals out there.

Those who do opt to request removal will probably either email their request to the forum, or, if they’re already members of the forum, contact a moderator via the internal system. I think in most cases an email to the administrator would probably be the better option, but it depends who you’re dealing with.

You could also publicly raise a copyright issue on the message board itself. The thinking with this is that if members know you’re watching them they’re likely to be a bit more respectful in future. But it’s a method you have to get right. If you antagonise members they could make things a lot worse for you. And from my own experience, forum members can be VERY unsympathetic towards copyright holders. You need to be a consummate diplomat. And remember, a post on the public area of the forum will probably be public forever. You can’t make it private, so if you get it wrong and make a fool of yourself you might do your copyright management campaign more harm than good. Additionally, administrators tend to pretend they don’t know what’s happening on their own boards, so if you don’t specifically contact them, they’re bound to claim in future cases that this is the first they’ve heard of the problem. There’s a reason why the phrase “Always take it to the top” became a cliché.

If you decide to send an informal email request to the administrator (as opposed to an official DMCA notice), don’t be meek or overly polite – they’ll most likely just ignore you if you do that, so make them aware from the start that you mean business. Don’t be abusive – just business-like and firm. Some forums seem to have a policy of ignoring first informal removal requests by default, so unless you make it clear straight away that you’re not messing about, you may just be wasting your time typing the email – numerous times.

Even though you’re only making an informal request, use the title: “DMCA Copyright Infringement”. That will ensure that any recipient who isn’t a complete and utter plank or a hopeless amateur will read the email. Give the forum details of what’s been re-posted, along with a link to its location on the forum and a link to your original post. Specify a short timeframe for the removal of your content and warn that if it’s not removed in this period your next step will be an official DMCA takedown notice sent straight to the forum’s Web host as well as the forum itself. If the forum admins are the kind of people who ever take any notice of informal takedown requests, they WILL take immediate notice of this, because it potentially means their site could be pulled offline by the host.

They probably won’t take kindly to your ultimatum and may not be very pleasant in any response they give, but that’s better than you having to write a string of “Did you get my last email?” messages, and then going through the whole charade again, re-documenting the problem over and over while they sit there and deliberately ignore it all. Don’t worry – they’ll always receive emails that need to be taken seriously. It’s the ones that don’t look like they matter that can mysteriously “fail to arrive”. And don’t accept that you’re threatening the forum. What you’re actually doing is giving them an opportunity to avoid running into trouble with their Web host.

If they don’t respond to your ultimatum, don’t informally contact them again. Just do what you’ve promised and serve the DMCA notices. The Web host will take the DMCA seriously even if the forum doesn’t, so you shouldn’t have to take any further action.

To find out the Web host’s details, use a WhoIs lookup site like WhoIsHostingThis or similar.

WHY NOT JUST SEND THE DMCA NOTICE STRAIGHT AWAY?

With a formal takedown notice you need to fully identify yourself, and that’s not necessary with an informal approach. My view is that if you can get the material taken down without some random forum admin (who, let’s face it, could be anyone) knowing your full identity, then that’s the preferable option.

THE FUTURE

Despite how it can sometimes seem, the future looks bright for writers of original text. Duplicate or even obviously derivative text is getting less and less credence in search, and that not only means stolen articles affect the prosperity of the originals less – it also importantly discourages website owners from hosting stolen content. Some forums in particular will have a big decision to make in the relatively near future. Do they sort out their problem with endemic stolen content, or do they end up getting so heavily penalised by new search algorithms that their very existence becomes untenable?

For the photographer, it’s sadly a gloomier picture. Images are much more ubiquitously copied and re-posted than text articles, and most of the Web’s newer features (past decade) have ‘legitimised’ image theft and made it easier, rather than seeking to protect the photographer. I normally make all my own images, but recently I added a few third party, Creative Commons Flickr photos to my other blog. Observing the terms of the licences in full, whilst keeping the blog looking as I want it, was frankly an absolute pain. Flickr doesn’t give you ready made code, so full and proper attribution requires either a hunt for an app, or some HTML amendments, or both.

I look around at the disregard the Internet in general has for properly observing copyright and attribution on images, and I think: “Why am I spending ten full minutes making sure the photographers’ wishes are properly accommodated when no one else gives a shit?” But then I remember how angry it makes me when I see individuals getting credit and a virtual pat on the back for other people’s work, and how I feel when people re-post MY photos unattributed. Yes, there’s an enormous problem with stolen photos on forums. And the forums have to take their share of the blame. But the really big online powers: Google, Yahoo, the social networks… they could stop this if they wanted. They won’t, because image theft is a wonderfully lucrative gravy train. So blame the forum admins, but blame the big boys in equal measure.

Author: Bob Leggitt

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