Bad news for content thieves (updated)

Unless you saw/heard part of this story on Your Mac Life earlier tonight, if you’re seeing this on Backstage – the part of iLounge reserved for “behind the scenes” commentary from our editors – you probably already know who we are, and what we stand for. We’ve been covering the iPod out of passion since way back in 2001, way before all the media attention, the existence of the iTunes Store, and the growth of the iPod accessory economy. Every day, we create and publish new articles, photographs, and other types of content designed to help new and current iPod users get accurate, objective, and honest information about Apple’s products, and we maintain strong editorial standards designed to guarantee that the quality of the content on iLounge remains high. For these reasons, our response from the iPod community – and the mainstream press – has been outstanding, and we’ve very much appreciated all of your support over the years.

I’m writing today because some bad things have been taking place behind the scenes recently, and since we’ve been forced to take some actions to deal with them, I wanted to put them into perspective to avoid any possible misconceptions. Some time ago, we discovered that a handful of people have been stealing our content, ranging from pieces of news stories to photographs, and sometimes entire feature articles. A bunch of the thefts have been blatant, the equivalent of a guy walking into your house, stealing your favorite digital photos, and then selling them as his own. Some have been less blatant, like the kid who wouldn’t stop looking over your shoulder during a test at school, doing his best to copy whatever you were writing, ultimately turning in something that the teacher instantly knew was a knock-off.

To be clear, we’re not talking about bloggers or other publications that link to our articles and provide attribution; we have always welcomed links to our content and are glad to cooperate with those who respect our intellectual property. The problem we’re having is with companies that have taken our content, removed our names and copyright notices, sometimes made little tweaks, and then reposted the content on their sites, selling advertising alongside it.

These are people who have every ability to be original – which they should be – but instead are trying to make money off of cloning us and reselling our creative work as their own.

Even though this has happened in the past, we have not wanted to take the most obvious route – rapid, bank-crushing lawsuits – because we understand that sometimes we’re dealing with younger people who mightn’t know better. For that reason, in most cases (except those where people are especially obnoxious, like these guys), we try to be measured in our initial response. Generally, our first step will be a warning and request to stop, the second a cease and desist letter or forced DMCA takedown of the content, and the third, a lawsuit. Most people stop after step one. You’d have to be an idiot not to stop after step two. If things have to get to step three, the statement is very clear: there is going to be a massive financial penalty, and if someone has pushed us to this level, he’d best believe that we are going to see it through until he learns his lesson or runs out of money – possibly both.

Unlike a physical theft, an online publication has different sets of laws to protect it under these circumstances. You probably know about copyright laws, which provide damages of up to $150,000 per item stolen when someone takes copyrighted materials for financial gain, as well as thousands of dollars in additional damages for doing things like removing our copyright notices from our pages.

Someone who steals just 15 photographs, for example, could be held accountable for over $2 million in damages under these laws, and believe it or not, jail time is also an option under such circumstances. Apart from copyright laws, there are also some serious business tort laws that content thieves can be sued under. Even though I’m a lawyer by training, I hate that we have to go down the lawsuit path, but that’s the sort of action we’re being forced to take.

Though I’m not going to mention their names right now, two sites – not owned by kids, but rather by adults who most certainly know better – have in the past few weeks been so brazen about theft of our content that we’re currently planning to file suits against them early next week. They’re not named here for only one reason: thieves like these don’t deserve the linkage or attention even posting this story will get them, and when you hear the full stories of the way they operate, you’ll probably be pretty disgusted by what people think constitutes “journalism” these days. Regardless of any ridiculous blustering you may hear from them, there are no excuses for theft of this type or scale, and they know better.

Because of how obnoxious some of these thieves are, the cases are pretty open and shut: aside from the obvious photograph and text thefts, the sites’ operators have done things like making references to us on one page while knocking us off on another, the exact sorts of evidence needed to prove willful and potentially criminal infringement. Of course, we’ve been compiling detailed comparison pages showing each of the thefts – sometimes even showing the post-publication changes they made to pages with stolen material – and created full archives of their site contents for our attorneys.

There’s a lot here to digest, and I’m sure there will be questions in the days ahead. We’ll answer the ones we can; others may have to wait a while, and just maybe, the thieves will knock it off rather than continuing to steal from us – that’d be great.