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Advice - General / Tracking down pirates

The internet makes it much easier for unscrupulous publishers and individuals to rip off your articles or photos, in breach of your copyright - easier, that is, compared to when they had to re-type or re-photograph your work.

In return, it also makes it possible for you to track down such abuses yourself. Of course, you can only do anything about those abuses if you have kept copyright in your work.

In the age of print, you would never know that your work was appearing in a paper on the other side of the world, unless a friend or relative or colleague spotted it and thought to call you. In the age of the internet, you can go looking - not only for internet rip-offs, but often for rip-offs by traditional print media that have internet editions.

Publishers' associations bang on about "piracy", but of course a very large portion of the pirating of articles and images consists of publishers ripping off writers, photographers and illustrators.

But there are issues with freelances' work being distributed in ways that are not authorised by anyone - by people who we'll call "pirates" as others do. So how do you chase them down?

There are three steps:

  • Find the rip-off
  • Find out who's responsible
  • Make them pay (or at least suffer)

Advising people who may not be familiar with the technology behind the internet how to do this takes a lot of words, so we have broken this down into sections. Unfortunately, it's important that you read them all.

Effective searching for text

To find all copies of one piece of your work online, you need to learn strategies for effective web searching. And photographers will often be searching for articles or web pages that may contain rip-offs, based on captions or other text.

The one most important tip is this: don't search for words that describe an article, search for phrases that are contained in that article - and not in anyone else's. Another is: don't rely on just one search engine. But there's more...

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Finding photos and illustrations

Technology for finding photographs is still changing quite fast. You can now send a photo to a special search engine that will find other photos that look like it. Still, though, your best bet is often to search for text that would be likely to be wrapped round a particular photo. Please see Photography / Tracking down pirates

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Once you have found a rip-off...

As soon as you find ripped-off articles or photos, you need to start collecting evidence as though you were going to court. It'll help in negotiation, even if you don't need to go to court. Here's how...

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Locating website owners

There are two parts to the question, "who owns that website?" - the owner of the name of the site, and the owner of the machine on which the site lives. These may or may not be the same person or organisation. In turn, they may or may not be the same as the organisation that claims ownership of the content - including ripping-off your work. It's the last one you want to negotiate with, but having the other details recorded helps in that process, because it helps you take action against the pirate if they don't pay.

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Getting remedies

You need to decide as soon as you've found a rip-off what you want. We recommend first going for cash. As Samuel Johnson said: "No one but a blockhead writes but for money" and the same goes for photos.

So, first, you're negotiating. Then you're taking steps to collect on a debt from a reluctant payer. Only if that fails, or if your work is ripped off in a context that damages your reputation, should you set out to get the rip-off removed from the internet.

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If you get fed up trying to collect cash, and anyway if you object to the context in which your work has been abused, then you want it removed from the internet. Here are some tips...

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Text © Mike Holderness & previous contributors; Moral rights asserted. The collection (database right) © National Union of Journalists. Comments to please. You may find the glossary helpful.

The National Union of Journalists must not, can not and would not wish to dictate rates or terms of engagement to members or to editors. The information presented here is for guidance and as an aid to equitable negotiation only.

Suggestions apply to contracts governed by UK law only. In any event, nothing here should be construed as legal advice.