You May Be a Criminal Without Even Knowing It

You’re probably shaking your head… Criminal? Seriously? Of course you haven’t broken the law! You’re a law-abiding citizen and would never consider doing such a thing!

And yet, there may be hundreds of you who have done just that.

Further, you would deny it – until you learn the facts.

The facts, described here, may help you get back in line with the law if it’s required.

I recently heard from one of our APHA members – we’ll call her Member A – who reported discovering that entire portions of her website, her intellectual property, had been stolen by another advocate, who we will call Advocate Z. Member A reached out to Advocate Z, explained that she had found the text from her website, word-for-word on Member Z’s website, and asked her to remove it.

Advocate Z had plagiarized Member A’s website; copyright infringement by its very definition. It’s the theft of your intellectual property. It’s against federal law, and it carries huge fines and prison time. Even the FBI has something to say about it.

Now – at this point you’re thinking…

OK. What does this have to do with me? I didn’t steal any content from another website!

My question to you: are you sure?

surprise imageLet’s begin here: Who built your website?

Advocate Z’s response to her own copyright infringement is typical: she dismissed the plagiarism by saying her web designer had supplied the copy on her website, so he was the one who had stolen it. Therefore it wasn’t really her problem.

Not true!

For one thing, when YOU own a website, when it’s about YOU and YOUR business, then YOU are responsible for it. And if the content on your site was originally stolen, then YOU are considered the responsible party, not your web designer.

That means that any copyright infringement that may appear on your site is YOUR crime. Unless it is part of commentary by someone else and is cited as commentary, then no matter who put it there – it’s your crime.

It makes no difference whether you knew it existed or not (as Advocate Z tried to claim.) You can be arrested, fined, even imprisoned whether or not you knew the information on your site was plagiarized.

Read about the worst case scenario penalties for plagiarism.

And then there is the flipside:

What if someone has plagiarized YOUR site (or any other materials you have created?)

How can you know? And what should you do about it?

Your site, containing your intellectual property (IP), is automatically copyrighted by you the moment it is published. Nothing needs to be filed with the government, or claimed in any other way. Publish it – and voila – it’s copyrighted by you.

Once published, it’s up to YOU to protect your copyright. If you don’t protect it, then eventually someone else, including someone who might have stolen it, can claim that copyright. Then it no longer belongs to you.

That makes monitoring others’ work an important business task to undertake periodically. It doesn’t have to take long, and it protects your IP.

I have a reminder set on my calendar to do such a review twice a year. Each time I do it, I find a handful of new sites have popped up that contain my content, my intellectual property. I reach out to them, politely, but very specifically with my content removal request. Every time I have ever reached out, the site owner was totally appalled, and claimed to have no previous knowledge that my material appeared on his/her site. All have ultimately changed the content on their sites. I don’t give them a choice.

How can you determine if someone has stolen your IP? And what can you do about it?

Over the years, APHA has hosted a couple of Expert Call-ins on this topic of plagiarism and intellectual property (IP). Podcasts of the calls are available.

Further, we offer articles and tools that address:

  • How to Find Plagiarism (apps that can help you uncover illegal use of your material)
  • How to Stop It
  • How to report it to the FBI
  • How to Prevent It
  • How to use someone else’s IP without infringing on their copyright
  • Samples of email/letters you can use to request someone stop violating your copyright

If you are a member of APHA, I urge you to log in to your membership Dashboard, then type the term “plagiarism” in the search box at the top of the page – and check out the resources.

Then, using the instructions you’ll find, contact those who have stolen your IP, and are infringing on your copyright.


Advocate Z did remove the material that had been stolen from Member A’s site. Unfortunately, both feel burned by the situation. But they both did what responsible business demands; they took care of it.

If I sound particularly adamant about all this plagiarism/stealing stuff, it’s because I have been a victim myself too many times. Imagine how frustrating it is for someone who makes her living as a writer, educator, speaker, developer… Believe me, when you find someone else has stolen your IP, you’ll go that crazy over it, too.

Bottom line: Don’t steal other people’s stuff! And don’t let others get away with stealing yours either.

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