Stealing sucks, especially when someone takes your hard work. As a creative professional, you’re exercising great trust when you take your work public. Whether you hand over samples to a potential client or post your designs on your own website, the instant it’s shared, you run a risk of theft. Here’s the good news: you can easily remove stolen content with a few simple steps and we’ll show you how.

prevent your design from being stolen
Here’s how you can protect your work from people who are trying to steal it.

In 1998, the US Congress passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA), making it a lot harder for the bad guys to steal your creative content. The act protects internet service providers (ISPs) and host websites against liability when content is stolen. But for artists, it means that once a violation has taken place, ISPs and hosting sites have a duty to take action.

But here’s the thing: the only person who is able to take legal action is the owner of the work. So if you discover that your work was stolen, you’re the only person who can do something about it.

So what should you do to protect your kick-ass designs from being used without your permission? Follow these simple steps to reduce your risks on the front-end and handle clean-up if you do discover a violation.

Step 1: Protect your work

Your first line of defense: prevent people from taking your stuff in the first place. If you can do that, you may save yourself from pulling your hair out.

watermark example
A watermark can go a long way in deterring people from taking your work without permission.

Many of your designs will be difficult to steal from the start, especially if they include client-specific details like a business name, contact information or body copy. For more generic images, logos or design elements, use a watermark to cover the image without obscuring it from view. Potential and current clients will still be able to make a decision about the design itself, and you’ll be able to keep your work safe until you’ve received payment.

Instead of a watermark, some designers brand each design with their name and URL in a discreet area, such as the bottom corner. Of course, we all know a little creative cropping can make that go away. For that reason, it may be more beneficial to make your design impossible to use online.

One way to do that is to snap a photo of your design on a table or shelf, which puts physical distance between your work and the person on the other side of the screen. You’ll still be able to show off your work without putting yourself at risk, and content thieves will likely move on because a high-resolution copy isn’t available.

Step 2: Search for violations

Artists discover their stolen work in several different ways, sometimes stumbling upon it through a basic Google search or getting an alert from a concerned friend or colleague. But the best way to find your stolen content is to regularly search for your own images.

via Pixsy

Several services that make this easier, including Google Image Search and tools like Pixsy, which helps you track down all of the sites using your work. This free service lets you connect photos from social media, Dropbox and Google Drive, and upload files individually.

Once your photos are connected, the service will monitor for violations, and let you know if they find any. If you see a violation, you can start a new case—basically the online version of calling the police. The company has a network of 26 legal partners and law firms (and nobody wants to get a letter from a lawyer).

If you’ve noticed a violation, but the theft is a design you sold to a client, notify the client immediately. Since they own the image once purchased, they’ll need to take the next steps to have the content removed.

Step 3: Contact the host

Under DCMA, ISPs and websites can separate themselves from the content people post on their sites. Without it, a platform like Facebook or Instagram could be forced to police every image posted by members. But even with DCMA, sites must take action if someone alerts them that they are hosting stolen content. That means your first course of action is to ask them to remove stolen content.

First, use the contact information on the offending page to reach out. Politely explain that you are the artist and this content was not purchased. If the content is for sale, let the person know how to buy it, making it as easy as possible for them to pay for it. Otherwise, issue a brief deadline for the stolen item to be removed to avoid further action.

If you’ve emailed and nobody’s listening, put on your Sherlock Holmes hat and do some detective work. Try to find the larger entity hosting the site. If it’s a WordPress-hosted site, for instance, use this form to have the content removed. Wix and SquareSpace also have similar processes, too.

via Wordpress
via Twitter

Often stolen material shows up on social media, too. If you do see your work there, ask for removal in the site’s copyright infringement section:

One final step: When content is stolen, the Google search robots flag the offending site as duplicate content, which can cause your own page to disappear from searches entirely. To prevent this from happening, file an infringement notice to deindex the stolen content and bring your original site back to search results.

Step 4: File a DMCA takedown notice

If the website still hasn’t taken steps to remove stolen content, you’ve got one last resort: the DMCA takedown. Remember: as the owner of the work, you’re the only one who can take legal action. No one else can do this for you. Here’s how you do it:

  • Track down the host registrar using the WHOIS tool.
  • If you can not find the DMCA agent contact on the host’s website, search the US Copyright Office list of DMCA agents.
  • Contact the host with an official complaint. Typically, that’s email, but law requires to communicate by the DMCA agent’s chosen method, which may be fax or snail mail.
  • Use this template and include all information relevant to your situation.

Bear in mind that the offender can file a counter-notice, which requires the host to make a judgment call. The more proof you have that the content originated from you, the better.

See something? Click something.

Finding out that someone has stolen your hard work can make you feel powerless, but never forget that you legally have the right to remove stolen content from any website. Monitor the web regularly to protect your creative work. Each infringement report sends the clear message to all offenders that great creativity is never free.

Have you ever had to ask a website to remove stolen content? Tell us your stories in the comments.