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FAQs | Legal

Protecting Content from Redistribution

Q1: How can I stop unauthorized reproduction of Web material, other than vigorous threats?

  • Speaking as both an electrical engineer and intellectual property attorney, there's no simple answer to this problem, which has business, engineering, and legal implications.

    Business Approach: Keep in mind that your goal is to maximize subscription dollars. If you put it on the Web, face the fact that people are going to reuse it in small ways (email it to a buddy, etc.) without your knowledge or consent. The best you can do is to discourage and hopefully minimize that, and keep in mind that it has little economic impact. Real losses come from massive posting of information, or regular offenders (e.g. one person subscribing and then regularly passing it on to numerous coworkers. If the non-subscribers who get the content wouldn't have subscribed anyway, or never knew you existed, you didn't lose any revenue on that news item. In fact, letting people forward an occasional item to a friend, with attribution included, is free advertising and might increase revenue, rather than the other way around.

    Engineering Approach: From a technical perspective, browsers operate by displaying files locally that are retrieved from your server. I don't see any technical way to prevent those having authorized access to your content from copying text and graphics delivered on the Web. The content becomes resident on the user's computer during display, and once it's there, you have no way to stop them from blocking and copying text, or saving graphics files to disk.

    Given that browser source code is available, you could create a custom browser, or a java program running in the browser, that would display graphics without providing a command to save them. However, text block and copy is a basic windows function and hard to stop. I'm not sure there's enough benefit in custom programming to outweigh the disadvantages and inconvenience of requiring special browsers or programs to access the service.

    I suppose you could also discourage people from posting text to newsgroups by transmitting a GIF containing a "picture of the text, "rather than just text, but that seems really impractical because it would slow down delivery and multiply server bandwidth requirements.

    There are, indeed, companies that scan the web for graphic file "signatures" and tell you when they find things that were copied, such as Online Monitoring Services ( ). I'm sure they can look for copied text as well--because that's a lot faster and easier than comparing graphic content. That tells you who is posting your content elsewhere, but doesn't prevent the problem. You still have to enforce your rights by threat, or further action if economically justified.

    Legal Approach: The "legal" solutions aren't much more satisfying but if done right, can at least discourage copying and provide excellent recourse in the case of organized or repeated violations. You will want to do the following:

    1. Have a strong and understandable subscriber agreement that explains your rules.

    2. Appeal to moral sensibilities with reminders on the site that the information is not to be reused or retransmitted (or defining what's allowed and what isn't).

    3. Put copyright notices and attribution on all content, and register your copyrights promptly. See the Netpreneur IP Resource Center at for more information.

    You will definitely want to consult your IP attorney on these issues as you develop the site. [Evan Smith, GT LAW / Greenberg Traurig,]

  • The Software Publishers Association publishes an online publication, about the regulatory environment of Electronic Commerce, which was initially developed free for our membership. It is not technically a regularly published periodical but a resource guide. However, since the Web is dynamic, it is up-to-date, unlike something published every year or two.

    We debated using some of the encryption technologies but found that the effort was too much for too little. How would we stop them without making the user experience difficult, and thereby driving away customers? If people can't forward content, they will just print and hand it over. It's in almost impossible to stop people if they want to pass this type of information. But two things to consider. One, if you are selling a low cost publication, you may want the information passed along to build the customer base. They may find it useful and decide to subscribe themselves. Secondly, if you have a more pricey item, people are not as willing to pass along information if they spent a great deal of money on it. You will never have a 100% compliance but hopefully you'll come about ahead. [Fred Hoch,]

Q2:How can redistribution be turned to your advantage?

  • Make a virtue of a vice, the way print publishers do.

    Print publishers don’t complain about subscribers stealing their content when they pass along their copy to a friend or xerox an article for limited distribution. They SELL "pass along" readership to advertisers or use it as a talking point in their marketing material.

    If you can do likewise, then you have an advantage. Remember, no one would want to pass along your content if it weren't worth passing along. It's a good thing. [Richard Kinsey, rkinsey@VISIONFOUNDRY.COM]

  • I believe that some "sharing" of subscribed material is a good thing from several points of view. If you are really concerned about losing subscribers (and the income) from unauthorized forwarding of your copyrighted material, you could install a link which offers to "Send a Copy of This Article to a Friend" and log the recipient's name, etc. for further marketing. [Jeff MacConnell, IDeal Destinations]
  • My take is that "word of mouth" is always the best advertising strategy, and having content borrowed from a subscription site can be a GREAT incentive for recruiting new subscribers. Think of it in terms of an electronic word-of-mouth grapevine. To capitalize on "plagiaristic" content forwarding, you can simply add 2-3 elements to each page of content in the form of inline header/footer in a small font that states something like:

      "The content on this page is copyrighted material. License is granted to forward this information to third parties only if this entire header/footer is included without alteration. No changes to this content are allowed in any form, electronic or in print."

      "If you would like more information, or if you would like permission to use this information for publication or any other use, please ask us at: ."

      "Thank you for your cooperation."

      [Note: There are other issues or policies you may want to include as well, and it's always a good idea to have a lawyer review such pieces if possible [Neil Oatley, Netpreneur Program]].

    Then put a hyperlink to your subscription page embedded into the header/footer, and an offer for "initial free trial period" of a few days or a week, to get new users to your site.

    ZDNet offers a similar "Send a copy of this page to your friend(s)" form which I believe is an excellent idea. It won't prevent people from simply e-mailing the page themselves directly, but will increase your relevant data collection efforts handsomely.

    If you start a policy of litigating against users who are sending your content around, you undermine your own business in many ways in terms of lost time, money and members. However, if you allow occasional "clipping" of your content with the understanding that you're allowing the subscriber base do this as a favor, psychologically they will limit the behavior, and possibly encourage their friends to subscribe. [Jim Harmon,]


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