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Protecting Your Intellectual Property On The International Stage

Copyright and trademark theft are despicable and very unsettling for managers – personally, I get very angry when other websites steal our expensively and carefully crafted information for web users. But when you’re working in the global space this carries yet more risk for two key reasons: first, it’s much more likely to happen because abusers in other markets think they can get away with it, and second, it is actually much more difficult to successfully tackle the problem without incurring large costs.

The leaders in our industry are not especially fine examples either. It took Google over a decade to arrive at its current position on intellectual property.

I have a very personal reason for being concerned about this area as whole slices of our corporate website have been copied by others on many occasions, and figuring out how to deal with it has been a constant worry and challenge. Bear in mind also, that even if you aren’t planning to trade in markets where you content or products are copied, it’s still a good idea to keep an eye on this as it might come back to bite you in your domestic market.

What is Really Worth Protecting?

So what do you need to protect and how do you go about doing it? More importantly what is really worth protecting? The key elements you should be concerned with are:

  • Textual content
  • Graphical content
  • Trademarks & patents
  • Domain names

Copyright And Text May Be The Toughest Call Of All!

Technically copyright is one of the easiest protections to achieve because as soon as your work is published, your content is pretty much protected—or is it? Copyright is a relatively universal law applying in many parts of the world — but it is weakened by the “fair use” (in the US) and “fair dealing” (in most of the rest of the world) provisions which mean that there are reasons—such as research or criticism—whereby it’s generally accepted that re-using someone else’s work is OK.

But the big issue with protecting copyright internationally is spotting that theft has actually occurred, and then deploying lawyers without the cost of taking action becoming prohibitive. In many cases, there’s no practical means to institute a proper defence of copyrighted web pages. There is something you can do about tracking but most don’t, despite simple and relatively quick methods. For example, you can create Google alerts to track snippets of your own web content.

In terms of taking the copyright thief to task, actually tackling the copyright itself directly may not be the very best method to do this because the levers available to you internationally are so fragile—but if and when you do this it should be as soon after the discovery as possible to have any chance of achieving a good result.

In our industry, an attractive option to dealing with the theft is to liaise with the search engines. Google’s policy is here. Bear in mind however, that the approach will largely follow US or Californian Law and that as Google is concerned not to over-protect copyrighted material it will generally list instances of action taken at ChillingEffects.org.

Protecting Graphical Content

Proving that your images and graphics have been ripped off is, in many ways, easier than dealing with the textual problems. The bigger problem is here just discovering that it’s going on. There are some great solutions now which I strongly recommend you play with to track who is doing what with your images. One such is TinEye.com which compares your image pixel-by-pixel to other images on the web to see what you can find. Once you’ve found misuse of images, you still have the legal or search engine approach to tackling it, but this should be easier to do as image abuse is harder to deny.

How Useful Are Trademarks And Patents?

In my humble opinion, everyone working in the international space should consider trademark and patent registrations as these give you more solid protection than copyright. The big advantage with both of these types of protection is the fact that you submit what you are planning to protect in advance which gives people, who may wish to object, an opportunity to do so. This also means there is less scope to complain after the event.

The second big advantage with trademarks and patents is there are pretty universal processes for deploying these internationally. For instance, you can file for trademark protection for the whole of the European Union in one go rather than registering country by country.

Domain Names Are Wunderbar!

I love domain names for the way they help protecting international enterprises. Domain names have some very quick benefits for international projects. First, they are very quick to roll out and extremely inexpensive compared to recovering them through lawyers or mediation afterwards. Second, the ownership of domain names is incontrovertible — which means that nobody can argue with you as to whether you own a domain or not. You do, period.

How can you use domain names to help? Naturally, you should buy the relevant domain names for all the markets you plan to target in the foreseeable future, and even beyond the horizon of your current future. This is because they are so relatively inexpensive to buy.

You should also consider buying the domain names everywhere for your core products and services. Not only are you preventing someone else from doing this, but by publishing content on a domain which has a clear date or registration, you are helping your claims elsewhere that you are the owner of a particular mark or of copyrighted material. The fact that mark is particularly unique or unusual is just another reason to believe that you are the victim—which is not always clear in a copyright case.

The other thing you can do (though I’m not recommending you go and do this unless you’ve taken serious legal advice) is to buy the domain names of someone who infringes your content. It’s a fairly aggressive approach, but it does give you something more powerful to trade in return for removal of your content from an offending website. When you’re dealing with people in markets where the legal processes are less clear and less well-defined than in the US or Europe, barter can be a very effective and well-understood language of commerce.


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