How I dealt with the theft of my intellectual property

I’ve been writing for a US magazine website for a few years now. The other day, one of my articles from it was stolen. I discovered the theft while on the train, idly scrolling the Facebook app on my phone. Somebody who runs a page focused on a suburb of my home town Napier – who I went to high school with but who uses a false name on Facebook – had cut-and-pasted my content into his own page, as if his own, with his own pseudonym on it. He hadn’t approached me. Hadn’t asked. Just taken it and used it, as if his, without even crediting me.

This, I believe, is called ‘theft’.

Public domain.

I have a good deal of experience with New Zealand intellectual property law and rights. Understanding it is literally bread-and-butter for writers – book contracts, for instance, intimately use the principles. But in any case I used to deal with the issues routinely when I was working for the central bank, where (among other copyright-related things) I did the clearances for the portraits on New Zealand’s banknotes. I was also on the committee that selected them, but that’s another story.

So yeah, I know what I’m doing. And the thing about copyright is that it bestows upon the copyright holder (usually the author) the right to grant permission (‘license’) for others to publish the material. In other words, if somebody wants to use something that’s copyright to somebody else, they have to ask. This guy hadn’t. I needed my desktop computer to properly deal with the theft, but I was about half an hour away from home. As placeholder I posted a comment noting it was mine, and was being used without permission.

Then, within a couple more minutes, I discovered the miscreant had shared the same article – again without permission and as if he’d written it – on a local Facebook group. Two thefts. I commented on that one too.

Before I got home, someone responded telling me to let it go. It was old stuff, apparently and I shouldn’t object to it being used. Yup – apparently I’m wrong to complain if somebody helps themselves to my income-earning property and puts it out under their own name. I had to explain that it was a current article. Also, this is how I earn a living – they wouldn’t like it if somebody helped themselves to their property or pay-packet, would they? Same thing.

Besides, living authors don’t lose rights even if their stuff is ‘old’. Copyright exists in New Zealand for 50 years after the death of the author. But my critic, it seemed, believed I was wrong to object to my property being appropriated by somebody else, without permission, and then republished as if their own. Sigh.

By the time I got to my computer, the thief had posted credit to me, at the bottom. He had, he insisted, been doing this just when I commented. Really? He’d posted the stuff hours earlier and didn’t add credit until I’d posted objecting to his appropriation of my IP. But crediting me merely stopped it looking like plagiarism, if anybody bothered to scroll down. It didn’t get him off the copyright hook. The whole essence of copyright is that anybody wanting to use another’s material must ask first. The copyright holder has right to grant permission – or not – or to do so on specified terms, including a license fee.

Curiously, another commenter pointed out that she’d repeatedly been warning the IP thief about his copyright infringements. Interesting.

What upset me was the fact that the guy hadn’t asked – he’d just helped himself and published my material as his own, even though it was credited and copyright-labelled on the original site (a formality – in New Zealand law, copyright is automatic and doesn’t require labelling). And he’d done it twice.

What also upset me was the attitude from one of his readers that I was wrong to object.

Luckily the admin of the group it’d been posted to was only 2 degrees removed from me – literally. New Zealand is a small place. Napier is even smaller – just to give this story dimension, I went to high school with the IP thief, and the person who commented about his repeat infringement of copyrights is from a family that’s known mine for about three generations.

The admin took the stolen content down from the group. Instead, I posted a link to my original article.

I also asked the guy who’d originally stolen my material to take it down from his page and, if he wanted, to instead post a link. Eventually he did, without otherwise responding or apologising.

I write full time for a living. It’s hard. Damn hard. If people help themselves to my stuff without asking they are taking away my ability to support myself. Directly. My published material is NOT free for anybody to take as if their own. The end. And if somebody wants to use it, ask. I’m not unreasonable. And I’m not hard to find online.

If you want to see what the fuss is about, click through to the piece. And – please – click the ‘buy’ link below it. My science book on earthquakes. You’ll love it. And I get to buy groceries.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2021


9 thoughts on “How I dealt with the theft of my intellectual property

    1. It’s too easy to copy photos! Seriously irritating – and it’s a matter of principle that credit is given where it’s due. Curiously, I got criticised for watermarking mine, apparently I’m wrong to do that because it intrudes into the photo. Have you ever had that happen with yours?

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  1. Ugh…I couldn’t ‘Like’ this. Apart from the financial and legal aspects, there’s also a psychological one. When I found my first book listed for ‘free’ on a scam website, I felt as if I’d been raped. Nine years of work and dreams stolen to lure some poor, greedy sap into visiting a website designed to fleece them of their money. My book wasn’t the only one, and I’m sure I didn’t lose any actual sales, but finding it there still made me feel physically sick.

    The problem seems to be that everyone expects everything on the internet to be free, even when it’s obvious that it isn’t. Worse, a lot of people believe that if something isn’t free, it should be. How they figure that I don’t know. Maybe they assume that every author is rich and therefore obliged to share?

    I’ve always been a fan of ‘re-blogging’ because it’s a) a sign of appreciation and b) helps make my work more visible, but reblogging is only meant to provide a sample of the original. To take the whole cake and pass it off as your own? That /is/ theft, pure and simple.

    I’m glad you forced the thief to make good on the theft. Hopefully the embarrassment will make him think twice about doing the same thing to someone else.

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    1. I’ve had issues with my titles appearing on scam websites too. Seriously upsetting, and it’s like playing whack-a-mole to deal with it. The worst of it is that these site usually don’t actually have the book, and it risks giving the authors they steal from a bad name along the way.

      The miscreant has continued to post others’ content, sometimes multiple times a day, but since I pinged him has taken to crediting them. That, of course, doesn’t mean he has any right to do it – it merely means he’s not plagiarising them. The copyright issue stands. I suspect the guy doesn’t actually understand this – or doesn’t want to – and imagines he is doing some kind of public service. Ouch.

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      1. Yes, being associated in any way with these scam sites is potentially damaging because those being scammed have no idea the author is just as much a victim as they are. More, probably because they chose to click, we didn’t.
        I’m no expert on Copyright, but even I know that you can only reproduce a small percentage of someone’s work before copyright is infringed. Can’t remember exactly how much, but reproducing a whole article is a no-no. Does he realise he could actually be prosecuted for this?

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  2. Part of the problem might be that people don’t understand that creation of IP is actually WORK. I mean, on the outside, it looks like you’re making stuff up out of thin air. Even if you’re Wm. Shakes. sitting down with quill and ink and paper. Those same people who appropriate IP without thinking about it would (most of them) recoil in horror from armed robbery. They don’t get that it’s the same thing.

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  3. And of course there is a lot of free stuff on the internet–public domain works and books whose authors have chosen to give them away for free. So some people may just assume that if they can access it, it’s free. But ignorance of a law is no excuse.

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