Marketing strategies have changed a lot over the years, with more companies digitizing their materials to reach customers faster and easier. While convenient, this switch to digital puts a company’s virtual intellectual property, such as photos and website copy, at risk of plagiarism. Virtual intellectual property theft is incredibly hard to detect, however, making it crucial that all original materials are properly protected. We’ll explore steps you can take to protect your company’s intellectual property and what to do if you discover someone unlawfully using your materials.
TRADEMARKS AND COPYRIGHT
For small businesses, an important first step in protecting your brand includes trademarking any logos, designs or other assets unique to your company. These assets are what set you apart from competitors and can help customers distinguish your services and build brand loyalty. Without trademark protection, your company’s assets are virtually up for grabs and you’ll have little recourse should they be stolen. In fiscal year 2019 alone, the United States Sentencing Commission saw more than 76,000 cases of copyright and trademark infringement cases.
To complete a trademark application, you’ll first need to verify the name, logo or design you are looking to protect isn’t already owned by someone else. This can be done by using the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s (USPTO) trademark database. Once you’ve completed this step, you’ll be able to file using the USPTO’s application portal or a third-party trademark filing service like LegalZoom.
When it comes to protecting your marketing materials or website, businesses are protected to a degree through the copyright law of the United States. According to Copyright Society of the USA, this law provides the copyright owner with the exclusive right to use, reproduce, distribute and display copyrighted work. Due to the vague nature of this law, however, it is recommended that businesses include a concise copyright notice that is visible to site browsers at all times to minimize plagiarism of intellectual property and register materials with the U.S. Copyright Office.
It’s also important to periodically check if your materials have been plagiarized online, and there are several resources that can be used to do so. You can use tools like Copyscape or take sections of your website copy and search for unauthorized use of it on Google by using quotation marks around specific sections. Additionally, to help avoid accidental plagiarism yourself, consider installing Grammarly—a browser tool that will notify you if your copy is too similar to someone else’s.
As a small business, discovering someone has copied your materials can be alarming, and knowing what actions to take next can be daunting. First, draft and send a cease and desist letter informing the perpetrator of the illegal use of your materials. From there, notify Google of the stolen materials by creating a request in their help center. If found to be plagiarized, Google will automatically remove all pages using stolen content.
SOCIAL MEDIA PLAGIARISM
While social media is one of the most effective marketing tools available to business owners, it’s also incredibly easy for others to use to steal your intellectual property. As with all other forms of media, your social media content is protected by copyright laws that ensure your work is legally owned by you. Unfortunately, there is little accountability when users steal content from others on social media, and it can be difficult to track down perpetrators to ensure they are providing proper credit when sharing your materials.
Despite these difficulties, there are ways companies can protect the content they share on social media. Adding your company’s logo or watermark to videos, photos and any other types of media make it more difficult to reuse these materials on social media without giving proper credit.
To ensure you’re not plagiarizing copy yourself, it’s important to be aware of the different ways this could happen without your knowledge. Many companies that don’t have a dedicated social media team at their disposal use the helpful tool, If This Then That (IFTTT). This tool allows companies to connect and manage social media accounts, including automatically posting Instagram content to your company’s Twitter or automatically retweeting text from select accounts. While incredibly convenient, this tool can also create problems if not set up properly as it can also copy text verbatim and post it to your account without giving proper credit. Be sure to check the parameters of your IFTTT account to ensure the “retweet” function is selected, not the “copy” function.
If you suspect someone is stealing your content using an IFTTT account, consider reaching out to them directly to share your concerns as well as warn them about the possible repercussions of accidently plagiarizing your content. Provide them with the solution above or recommend they utilize Twitter’s retweet function so that proper credit is always given.
KEEPING UP WITH THE CHANGING LANDSCAPE
As technology continues to evolve, so too does the virtual legal landscape. To ensure your materials are as protected as possible, consider filing for trademarks and place a copyright notice on your website. Brand all social posts in some way to minimize plagiarism and be proactive if you discover someone is using your content unlawfully to ensure you’re doing everything you can to protect your intellectual property.