On a beautiful spring evening a couple years ago, when I was (of course) sitting at my home computer instead of enjoying the night air, I received an e-mail that really freaked me out. I've only told a couple colleagues about the incident, but it's such a perfect intro to this story I had to write it up for you all.
I'll copy and paste the e-mail's relevant content here, protecting the sender's identity:
From: [a newspaper editor in Colorado, per his sig]
Subject: A question about your training web site
To: [me, and someone else I didn't know]
Hey guys — Assuming that Seneca and [the unknown other guy in the
"To:" field] are not the same company … I'm wondering how you both
wound up with the exact same "letter" from a satisfied customer. Too
bad — we're looking for a company to run a series of training seminars
in Colorado, but I don't think we can go for anyone who fakes their
letters of recommendation.
The writer then copied and pasted one of the client testimonials that appear in the sidebar of a couple pages in my site. He prefaced the first excerpt with my URL and the other instance, a duplicate of the first, with this other guy's URL.
In other words, this other guy — a small training company in Oregon, turns out, who has since closed shop — had at some point copied and pasted content from my web site to his own, including my client references!!!! Apparently, the trainer-seeking potential client in Colorado had Googled a phrase that resulted in both our pages appearing in the results, found that our content was exactly the same, got disgusted and fired off the e-mail.
I went to the thief's URL and was aghast to see not just my client testimonials, but page after page of my finely-tuned marketing copy appear under his training company's logo. He even grabbed my CSS and used my sidebar styles and colors, which didn't match his design at all.
Well, thank heavens I'm a packrat when it comes to e-mail, because I was able to find the original e-mail my satisfied client had sent me, the one Mr. Colorado quoted in his e-mail. I forwarded it to him, including the headers, and told him that *I* was the originator of the content, not this other guy, and here's the proof. I went on to say that while I was sorry to have lost him as a potential client (he never did hire me), I was grateful that he brought it to my attention!
The story ends well; I was able to contact the ripper-offer the next day, who was exquisitely embarrassed and ashamed, and he removed the content immediately. I followed it all up with a paper trail in case it happened again.
Wish I had Known About Copyscape
Since the freaky-e-mail-from-Colorado incident, I've been periodically entering unique phrases from various pages in my web site into Google's search field to see if they appear anywhere else on the Internet. (So far, nothing I don't know about.)
And then I found Copyscape. Saints be praised. It's a free web-based service that lets you enter a page URL and see where else on the web that page's text content is found — even if it's just a few sentences, even if it's been reformatted, even if someone quoted from it in a forum post. Results are almost instantaneous. You can click on the URL links it found and Copyscape highlights the passages that were lifted from the page URL you entered.
Under the terms of the free service, you can hand-enter up to ten URLs from the same web site per month. If you spring for the Premium plan (you know there's gotta be a Premium), you have an unlimited number of queries you can enter, and you can paste in off-line content (like from your magazine or e-book) to see if anyone's using it for web content. There's even an API available, so if you've got a developer-type geek on staff, they can figure out a way to automate the checking from a web-based interface.
No developer around? Then consider a related service they offer called CopySentry, where for $5/month and up you can have Copyscape check your site's pages on a daily or weekly basis and e-mail you reports.
I don't think I need to go that far for my own little training company site, but I can see where it would be extremely useful for other types of companies; ones where competition is fierce and custom content is in high demand. And blogs, too … if you've got a popular blog, wouldn't you like to see if someone is posting your content as their own?
Check out Copyscape, it's great! Interesting chatter on the Copyscape forums, too, such as people talking about what they've done when they've found a content thief. (Apparently I was way too easy on the Oregon guy.)