Just because it’s available for free, doesn’t make it yours. Join me today, as I tell the true story of a company that copy and pasted an entire article I wrote to put on their website, and then asked me for permission after. I recount my honest reactions, how I stood up for myself, and what I learnt.
It begins the morning of Thursday, the 20th of July 2017. At 8:22, to be precise. I received an email from the contact form of my blog. This is what it said:
Clara, we would like to include your content as a guest blog from time to time. Please let me know if this is acceptable and any information you would like included in your posts. Thank you!
Signed, the CEO of a record label I had never heard of. Obviously, I’m not giving out his name or name of the company, because they don’t deserve free publicity. My first reaction was confusion. I don’t think they followed me on social media, and I was 100% certain I’d never met this man at a conference or around town. But he found my work, and wanted to “include my content as a guest blog.” What did that mean?
Did they want permission to republish an already posted article from Pop of Colour? Didn’t they know that Google punishes duplicate content, even if it’s given with permission?
Did they want to hire me as a guest blogger? Like, write an exclusive post for their company? Their email was worded really awkwardly if they were trying to say that. I mean, they hadn’t even said hello or complimented my work to me before.
I thought to myself that I’ll check out their website. The guy reaching out had a pro email, and left his full company name in the contact form. To Google I went, and oh boy. The website had a very slow loading time, a black background with white letters, random sections used different fonts. There was a built-in music player and rotating carousel of artists they worked with as the header (I had never heard of any of them either). Right underneath the carousel, on the home page, under “news and announcements” was one of my blog posts; with the date of publication the 16th, four days before they reached out to ask for permission. They had copy and pasted one of my blog posts and stuck it on their website.
It wasn’t straight up plagiarism like they teach in school – they didn’t say they wrote it. They made a big deal in the title about how I was their guest writer. The article itself was my “10 Mistakes Musicians Make When Designing Their Artist Website” guest post that was recently published on a friend’s music blog, Industry Me. Judging by the look of the company’s website, they clearly hadn’t taken any advice from the article; therefore, they weren’t fans, just thieves. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like my stuff being stolen.
I was furious. The bit that got me the most was that they are a registered, American, for-profit company. This wasn’t the case of some young artist who admired my work so much they wanted to showcase it, and didn’t know any better. These were professional adults running a business online: they had flashy banner ads across their website, a menu link to their Shopify store where they sold merch (like the pet clothing featured above) with their company logo on it (friendly reminder that Shopify’s in-house merchandise making system works by only printing the logo once the a customer order is placed. Like that, small companies don’t even have to invest in their own merch!), and offered paid packages for artist consultation and promotional services with three tiers (Silver, Gold and Platinum!). So basically, they stole my content for the following purposes:
1) To come up in the search results. I wrote “10 Mistakes Musicians Make When Designing Their Artist Website” in an SEO-friendly way and fun-to-read style on purpose, and with great care. When my ideal readers who haven’t heard of me yet go on an internet research mission when designing their first-ever artist website, this post will show up, catch their attention, and promote both myself, and the blog with the rights to post it. If musicians on that research mission see the same article title on both a blog they never heard of, and a company calling itself a record label they never heard of, they’ll click on the label, every time.
On a side note: if artists are paying a steady monetary fee to access one’s services, with no clear audition process to be eligible for these services, you are not a record label. You are an artist service company.
2) To build trust with their potential clients. Artists will read this piece on their website, and (if I did my job right), immediately see me as a knowledgeable thought leader with their best interests at heart. They’ll either not notice my name and focus on the content, or assume I work for this company – therefore, they should buy from them to access more helpful, quality content to help them succeed in the music business. I have essentially been turned into a sales representative for a company I had never heard of and whose business practices I don’t agree with.
3) To use my brand. Reputation building for Pop of Colour involves jumping from one opportunity to the next. As a result, I have to be very careful about how people I care about perceive my brand, because that affects everything going forward. This is why I’m very careful about which other brands I align myself with (for example, you will never see me as the handsomely-paid spokesperson for say, a label who uses fear tactics to get artists to sign bad deals without lawyers). When the artist service company in this story took one of my blog posts without permission and slapped my name on their website, they created a link in readers’ and clients’ minds that aligned both our brands. People would then think I use their services, get paid to advertise their services, and support their company, which I don’t. By stealing my content, they weren’t just trying to make money off a good product that wasn’t theirs: they were undermining my brand.
So, at this point in the story: I’m an enraged, fire-breathing dragon whose blog post got stolen so that some other company could get popular, make money, and leverage my reputation.
WHAT I DID
The first thing I did was reach out to my two best friends and boyfriend. All three of them are big fans of my work, though none specialize in the music industry (Stage Lighting Technician, Graphic Designer and Jewellery Salesman respectively). I told them what had happened, not for them to immediately have the magic solution, but to be able to voice my ideas out loud.
There were two people I wanted to reach out to before taking action with the company itself: Rachel, the owner of the blog my guest post had been stolen from and a local entertainment lawyer who leads workshops in town to teach unsigned musicians their basic legal rights.
1) Rachel. The post had been an exclusive for her music blog, written by me with a link to mine in the bio. It might have been a possibility that she had sold the rights to my work to this company without telling me, and pocketed the cash. It seemed unlikely (mind you, I’ve never met her in person since she’s in the UK), but maybe she had received the same email, granted this company permission to use her work, and they emailed me once they realized she hadn’t written the piece they wanted most, after it had already been published? Nothing she had written was on their website. Industry Me is mainly an unknown artist interview blog, and the other three articles featured by the thieves were all about music business, things that their ideal clients would be interested in. If I went right to the company without talking to Rachel first, they could just point the finger at her saying she granted them permission. “Hey. Did you licence the guest post I did for you to be posted on a record label’s blog?”
2) Byron. I know that in the blogging world, the most effective way to hit back at content thieves is to report them to Google, who will punish their rankings and seize their ad revenue: you can read detailed instructions on how to do that here. But let’s face it: judging by this company’s website loading time and layout, they were not likely to be a priority in the Google rankings for anything but their exact name, and the banner ads probably weren’t making as much money as their private services and merch. So I called up Byron Pascoe, who is also a regular featured writer in Ottawa Beat and on the Bandzoogle blog. I left him a shaky voice message, and he called me back within minutes from the Bluetooth in his car. I had never really spoken to an entertainment lawyer before, and when I think “music industry” + “lawyer” my first thoughts are high profile, million dollar lawsuits like the Blurred Lines vs. Marvin Gaye, Bittersweet Symphony vs. The Rolling Stones, or Kesha vs. Dr. Luke, you know? So I was surprised to learn that there were smaller steps to take first (as opposed to loudly threatening the company to LAWYER UP). This was the plan put together.
That day (Thursday): If the piece was stolen from Rachel, have her reach out to the company and tell them that they (1) don’t have permission to publish that piece and (2) need to take it down immediately.
If not taken down by the end of the next day (Friday): I email the CEO who contacted me, and introduce myself as the copyright holder of the article they published without permission. Ask them to take it down again.
If not taken down by Monday: Byron would send an official “cease and desist” email to the company, with the main purpose of scaring them into taking it down.
If still not taken down after that: Lawsuit.
I was pretty sure it would cost more to hire a lawyer than what they would pay me in damages for a copy and pasted article that could easily be taken down. At this point, Rachel got online and filled me in on her side of the story. They same guy had contacted her, offering her a deal where she could interview his clients in exchange for her articles appearing on his website. She said yes. However, he had also emailed her after stealing my article. I don’t think this company realized that she and I talk to each other. So, she wrote him a courteous message (displayed below). As you can see from his reply, he was banking on me saying yes to make her look bad (not gonna happen). My article was quietly taken down, and I’m sitting back, writing this piece and reflecting.
WHAT I LEARNT
1) Content theft can happen to anyone. It doesn’t matter whether you are a mega famous thought leader, someone writing a passion blog that you think no one is reading, or anywhere in between. You can’t prevent someone from copy and pasting or taking screenshots if they’re determined, but when they come knocking on your door to ask for permission to commit a crime after the fact, consider it a blessing.
2) Stand up for yourself. Yes, it goes without saying that your work belongs to you and stealing is bad. One person I talked to about this situation suggested I let them leave the stolen article on their website, as it would be free publicity for me. However, not all publicity is good publicity, especially the kind you didn’t ask for. I value myself and the brand I’m building with my writing too highly not to take action when someone tries to take advantage of its accessibility and quality for their own profit.
3) Make friends with lawyers. The more supportive people in your network, the better. From my experiences, it’s good to have more than just other musicians from your genre and age group in your contact list. Having more experienced, specialized (and in my case, older) music industry professionals in your circle will make you feel more confident in asking for help or insights when you don’t know the answer or solution to something you’re going through.
4) Get the full story before accusing. This was something I was nervous about admitting in the article: how I almost suspected my blogger friend of selling my content behind my back. I could’ve gotten all angry and accusatory, but what would that have left me when she gave me all her information? She was 100% unknowing of the theft, and 100% on my side in emailing the company first, leading to them taking down the article. Thank you, Rachel!
5) Lawsuits are a last resort. Maybe it was those stereotypical, drama TV shows that gave me the impression that any caught crime is resolved with either the police, a jail cell, or a big lawsuit. Wherever I had gotten that idea from, it was wrong. Going to court is messier, costlier, and more complicated than it seems, especially for such a small incident that was easily retracted. Thank you, Byron!
So that’s where the story ends as of now. Please recognize that your original content is valuable, and don’t let people or companies walk all over you. Stand up for yourself and your brand. Do you have a wild story about your work getting stolen? Comment it underneath this article, or contact me and tell! Creators support each other.