Content theft, plagiarism and piracy is a risk we take when doing any kind of business – especially when putting our content and intellectual property online.
When our intellectual property and content gets distributed without authorization, it can ironically bring us unexpected rewards – but it can also be severely damaging to our business if taken too far.
When even big ol’ Hollywood with its beefed-up lawyers cannot control illegal downloads and piracy of their content, how can we as everyday course creators protect our work? And should we really be that worried about it anyway?
How can you keep your online IP safe as a course creator?
In this article, online course creation expert Sarah Cordiner provides 14 tips to protect your online course intellectual property, having seen and experienced every trick during her 13+ years in the education business.
“The only thing worse than your IP being stolen, is you hiding it away in a dungeon“. @Sarah_Cordiner
Content and IP.
It’s the lifeblood of every information and education-based business. Course creators and Edupreneurs depend on it for their income and industry point of difference.
Your IP shows the world your expertise, gives your brand it’s voice and brings in your hard-earned cash.
Naturally, it deserves protection.
But, how do we manage the protection of our intellectual property, especially given the realities of the internet’s ‘share economy’?
Don’t worry ‘too’ much about what you can’t entirely control
Even with all of today’s technology, we simply cannot fully protect our IP, no matter how hard we try or how much we worry about it – so for the sake of our sanity, it’s best to accept that it may happen at some point and to not fret about it unless we have to.
If your content goes online, it’s at risk of getting stolen, copied or accessed by people who haven’t paid for it. That’s a fact.
If people really want to get their hands on it, they will. To a degree, we just have to accept this fact as online course creators and ensure that it doesn’t stop us serving the world anyway.
Content sharing can work in your favor
Generally speaking, I don’t worry too much about my courses and intellectual content getting shared, not only because I can’t do a huge amount about it, but also because sometimes, the sharing of your content can actually be a good thing. Really!
People who may have never otherwise have come across you get exposure to you and it can open up whole new markets to you.
I’ve been copied endless times, from my video scripts being reproduced by others, to my entire online course curricula being replicated, blog posts copy-pasted and even my actual LinkedIn profile was copied word for word once!
Never, ever, once has any of this affected my business negatively.
There are a number of reasons for this, but the two main ones are:
The people who copy me are not like me and therefore attract a totally different audience to me – people who wouldn’t ‘connect’ with me anyway, people who I wouldn’t ‘click’ with and therefore wouldn’t be my clients any way. We MUST remember that we could never service the entire world and importantly, nor would we want to! Not every customer is the right customer for us and there are more than enough people to serve in the world! You are not going to lose out if somebody else gets a couple of them too – especially if they are the kind of people you don’t ‘click’ with.
Nobody can be ‘me’. Each of us are unique and the way we do what we do, WHO we ARE, cannot be replicated no matter how good of an actor the ‘thief’ is. So I spend my time being more of myself, promoting my brand, connecting with my audience and establishing credibility and trust with those who I connect with, rather than being worried about desperately clinging onto my knowledge and locking it away in a vault from people who want to try ‘be me’.
In fact, it has often been my audience that have informed me that they have seen my content replicated elsewhere. This has massively turned them ‘off’ my ‘copy-cat’ and reinforced their connection to me.
I have also experienced gaining sudden surges of followers from countries that I was not actively promoting in, as a strangely positive outcome of a time when my content was illegally copied and distributed a few years ago.
I woke up one morning and found that my email list had grown by over 2,000 people, in ONE night. I was utterly baffled as I hadn’t done any major promotion or launch in the days before.
My system tracks the external ‘referred from’ URLs that my customers come from – eg what was the external link that directed them to my list or online courses.
My system showed that they had ALL come from one link – a website in India that had one of my paid online courses available for free download. An arrangement that I certainly had not authorized.
My IP had been ‘stolen’.
However, all of my online course videos are my ‘talking head’ and include my website URL on the screen footer at all times (see my YouTube videos for an example), and I also verbally make special offers in my online course videos.
These special offers require the viewer to go to a link on my website and enter their email address to claim the offer.
All of this meant that even though my course videos had been pirated, copied and put online for free, that it was still ME that got seen, MY website that was being promoted and my link to my other courses that was also being promoted.
So by pirating my content, this person ended up getting me just under 4,000 new people on my email list and just under $2,000 USD in course sales over the next couple of weeks!!
I would have paid 50% commission to this person had they contacted me for an affiliate link to do the same! But in this instance, I got a heap of promotion and new customers – for FREE!!
See, content sharing is not all bad!
But there are some unethical weirdos out there
As much as the sharing of a few videos or worksheets are not much to worry about, theft, plagiarism and piracy however, are all serious threats to business when it gets taken too far.
A few years ago, I received emails from a number of different people, each asking me if they could get a tax invoice for the online course set-up services that ‘I had provided for them’.
I was dumbstruck at how a project could have been completed by me or my company without the client getting an invoice upfront.
I NEVER start a course creation project with a client until at least a deposit has been paid – which of course they could only do if they had an invoice.
Therefore I simply couldn’t understand how a number of invoices had not been sent for paid-for projects!
To add another level of total confusion to my utter sense of madness, I literally had no idea who any of these people were!
I ALWAYS personally communicate in some way with all of my clients before a project goes ahead.
I knew something was very, spectacularly amiss.
I called an emergency team meeting with my staff, pulled open our project management and accounting systems and searched for every name of the people who had contacted me for an invoice. Nothing.
I asked my team if they had managed to somehow sell a service whilst by-passing me.
Scratching my buzzing little head, I contacted the clients individually and explained that having checked with my team, they must have contacted the wrong person as neither myself, nor anybody in my team, had created courses or built online schools for them, and therefore we had no invoice to send them!
After some discussions with these people, it turned out that an ex-STUDENT of mine who had attended my Course Creation Bootcamp the year before, had stolen all of my IP, had then falsely promoted it to their audience as a service that they were working with ME to provide (which they weren’t), they then charged the clients for the service and finally told those clients to go to me to get their tax invoices (not exactly the smartest ‘crime’)!!
Of the people that came to me seeking a tax invoice for the money that they’d paid this person, tens of thousands of dollars worth of my services had been sold without my knowledge!
To make it extra crazy, this psychopath also bought a website in my name to pull it off!! **Insert crazy horror film music**
As you can see, this is a very real example of when IP theft gets taken a step too far.
This is, fortunately, a pretty rare and extreme example of the lengths that morally defected and desperate people will go to to make a buck, so I do not wish to scare you – it’s HIGHLY unlikely to happen to you!
However, if you do find that your own IP is being used against you in a competing manner, THEN you need to address the situation.
When somebody uses your own content, IP and name to take money out of your business, bring in the legal experts immediately.
While reacting appropriately to having your IP stolen is all very well and good, setting safeguards in the first place is much better.
Here are 13 ways to protect your online course content and intellectual property:
- Get Trademarked
If you really are concerned about the protection of your IP, then it may be worth you considering getting a Trademark. It’s not suitable for every business, and it’s not cheap either. However, I would recommend at least speaking with a Trademark Attorney and getting their opinion on what your options could be.
- Post It
Simply print out your whole course, including the curriculum plan, lesson plans and content; then post it to yourself as tracked and recorded delivery, then never ever open it. If anyone ever reproduced your content and it went to court for dispute, you have the dated evidence of when your content was created and how long it has been around for. Simple, yet effective.
- Email It
The great thing about email is that it is time and date stamped. So I would also suggest emailing the zipped version of your online course to all of the email accounts that you have, as well as your trusted close loved ones, so that you always have proof of the original time and date that the content was created.
- Get a Legal Witness
You can also see a JP (Justice of the Peace) or a lawyer to create a cover letter to go with your course content and witness it in its original format, and then sign-date every single page for you. Ask them to keep a sealed copy at their office as well as taking a sealed copy for yourself. Again this can act as great evidence of its originality.
- Time Stamp
When it comes to online content, don’t forget that if you are sharing it publicly, that is your proof that you published it first! Every blog post has a ‘published’ date on it. Every YouTube video, social media status and livestream shows the original post date too. If a replica piece of content comes out after yours was published, it’s glaringly obvious who got it from who.
- Show Your Face
The first way I protect my content is to make almost all of my training videos and course content in ‘talking head’ video format – literally meaning that it is my face on the screen delivering the training.
Regardless of who is watching it and how they obtained it, it is still me who is clearly the expert. It is still ME, my face, my words, my head, my name, that is being presented to the audience – which means that I am the only one who can get the credit for it, or any subsequent business from it.
Ensure that your name and/or website URL or watermark is clearly marked on all of your training videos and documents. That way, if your content has been shared illegally, it has your logo, face and website on; and therefore it’s still you that will get the praise, credit, fans and subsequent business that may arise from someone watching that content.
- Make it common knowledge
If you have a ‘saying’, an approach, a process or something you consider ‘yours’, don’t ask yourself how you can wrap it up, hide it and protect it.
Instead, find a way to make it so big and so ‘you’, that no matter where and how it is used, everybody knows that it is yours.
Say it in every video, every blog, on your website, in your email signature, every interview you do and everywhere you can in the public eye.
Make it undeniably yours, but allow it to ‘belong’ to whoever would like to identify themselves with it too – after all, this is how you build a tribe and precisely how and why I created ‘Edupreneurs’ and defined ‘Edupreneurship’.
I wanted to become the undeniable leader of something, but do so in a way that I could give away something for others to assume as their own – an identity that they could belong to and to call theirs, but that ultimately will always come back to me as the leader of.
- Keep an Eye Out
Simply keep a watch out on your stuff. I use Google Alerts, which is a completely free Google tool that allows you to enter in various search terms, such as your name, your course titles and other words and phrases that you use.
Once set up, Google will email you whenever those words or phrases are published online – then you can check them out and see if you have been plagiarised, properly referenced, or if it’s just a coincidence.
- Use Plagiarism Checkers
You can also use plagiarism checkers to see if your work has been duplicated anywhere. There are lots out there, but one of them is http://www.copyscape.com where you can insert the URL to your blog post for example, and it will then scan the web for matching content. Alternatively there are lots of tools where you can copy-paste your text to see if it’s been plagiarised anywhere such as this site:https://smallseotools.com/plagiarism-checker/. Of course this won’t necessarily tell you who published it first, but will at least show if the same content is anywhere else for you to investigate further.
- Have a Copyright Policy
You can create your own policies to help guide and educate the public about what is ok and what is not when it comes to your IP. Although this won’t necessarily protect you legally, the education can guide those who wish to reference you fairly how to do it in the right way.
Simply write up a very clear list of what you deem as ‘ok’ when it comes to referencing you, using your content and sharing or reproducing it, and what is not ok. Give them some guidelines as to the types of things they would need to ask your permission for and what they can do without having to ask for written permission.
Finally, consider including a ‘copyright’ symbol or disclaimer on your content. Although it doesn’t offer extra protection it can make people think twice before they reproduce it.
- Make it Truly Valuable for Only One
IP is often accessed ‘naughtily’ (not necessarily maliciously) when people ‘share’ access with others by sharing their online course log in details with each other, losing course creators significant income over time.
However, if you make your courses highly interactive in nature, have private exclusive Facebook groups, discussion areas, one on one coaching elements, face to face training elements, live Q&A webinars and issue certificates of completion only to the people who paid for the course access, it suddenly only becomes wholly valuable to only one person, as the most valuable parts simply cannot be shared. This will never eliminate sharing, but including these ‘un-shareable’ elements certainly reduces it.
- If you hold it back, you are the thief
It can be easy to fall into defensive mode, to protect our intellectual assets and lock it all in an inaccessible knowledge dungeon where it’s ‘safe’ from the ‘pinchers’.
But don’t hold back all of your knowledge and stop all of your millions of potential customers from hearing it, just so that a small handful of people can’t get it. There is a certain madness in this.
We can become so obsessed with protecting ourselves that we forget about those who we are trying to help by producing online courses in the first place – ultimately ‘stealing’ their opportunity to learn.
What is worse?
Thousands of people having their lives changed by your content with a few people getting their hands on it ‘on the black market’, or nobody ever getting your help at all?
I know what I prefer.
- Nobody can ever be you
The most wonderful thing about being human is that we are all so different. People can copy our words, our writing, our ideas and our services, but they can never BE us.
People don’t buy stuff, they buy people. Because people like people. The way we speak, the way we look, the tone of our voice, how we hold our bodies, who we do or don’t remind them of, how we make them feel in our non-verbal communication and much more of the subconscious subtleties that are really behind any buying decision we make, are all things that can never ever be taken from us no matter how hard someone tries.
I am very aware of the fact the despite my growing competition daily and the number of people that are now out there trying to take some of the market that I operate in with my own content, they will never be me which means they are never going to be a threat.
You are the biggest trademark of your IP, so although we need to keep half an eye open, don’t let the fear of your IP being copied be a barrier to you changing people’s lives.
Learn more from Sarah Cordiner here.
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Written by Sarah Cordiner.
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