What to Do If Someone Steals Your Intellectual Property

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Written By Brian T. Edmondson, Esq.

Hi, I'm Brian. I'm an internet entrepreneur & lawyer. I write about all things internet business & law.

Hey, it’s Brian. This article is for informational purposes and is NOT legal advice, cool? Onto the article…

It’s the nightmare scenario for any influencer, content creator, or, really, any online business owner…

You find that someone has stolen the most valuable part of your business and is passing it off as their own and reaping the financial rewards.

That most valuable thing, of course, is your intellectual property. Your content. Your work. IP can be:

  • Patents
  • Copyrights
  • Trademarks
  • Trade secrets
  • Client lists
  • Logos
  • Names
  • Videos
  • Photos
  • Written content

In legal terms, this is all your intellectual property. What you produce is not tangible – there’s no warehouse full of your YouTube videos, coaching programs, webinars, ebooks, or whatever else. It’s all digital.

But it most certainly has value. People pay you for it, after all. And you’ve made it easy to access for your audience, by design. Unfortunately, that also means it can be all too easy for others to steal.

IP Theft in the Wild

You have heard of IP theft before in relation to major companies. Like an engineer who quits one tech company to work for a competitor…and takes some proprietary software code along with her, a version of which magically appears at her new company.

But even as a one-person show with your online venture, you can suffer tremendous loss from IP theft. And it’s a serious crime that can have a serious impact on your business.

Probably the most common type of IP theft is copyright infringement. This is as simple as someone simply taking your created work and then selling it themselves.

Perhaps setting up a website and charging people to download your coaching course.

Or taking one of your Instagram posts and using it themselves – after removing your links and such.

Maybe even copying the logo you use for your business, that is on your website, on your social media posts, and at the beginning of all your videos.

There is one interesting case from 2021 that bears a closer look.

In this case, a company called Petunia Skincare sued supermodel and influencer Molly Sim. Petunia owns the trademark for the term “Brow Boost” in relation to one of their products. 

Sims was working with another skincare company, Rodan &Fields, who had created a product called Brow Defining Boost. Petunia certainly had a case against Rodan & Fields because such similar names create confusion among consumers. 

But Petunia was also able to pursue a lawsuit against Sims because she was promoting the Rodan & Fields product in sponsored posts for which she was compensated, including with hashtags like #browboost.

This is just one of many IP theft cases we’ve seen in recent times.

All told, industry watchers estimate that IP theft cost companies in the U.S. alone up to $600 billion each year.

Taking Legal Action for IP Theft

Fortunately, IP theft is taken pretty seriously in the United States. And you have legal recourse. It all depends on the specific case. But you could file a civil case against the offender, i.e. sue them. Or you could also lodge a criminal complaint with the government. Or both.

Something you can do quite easily and immediately when you spot someone violating your copyright is by filling out a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown. This should remove your copyrighted work from the offending website or platform.

You could also contact the platform where the IP theft is taking place, like TikTok or YouTube or wherever…or even the web hosting company. 

You could even contact the thief directly and tell them to stop… or you will sue them. This is often enough to do the trick. And this could also be a good avenue in cases where the person was not aware they were stealing your IP… and had made a simple mistake. 

In cases where the thief sought financial gain, such as we saw with the competing skincare companies, you should probably not use a soft touch to say the least.

If the IP theft is quite serious and you have actually lost money, a lawsuit is probably the way to go. You don’t want to be tied up in filling out DMCA takedown requests constantly. And you want to be able to recover the money you could have made if not for the theft. And there is also the possibility that the thief has damaged your reputation and brand, impacting your ability to run your business – and make money – in the future.

One last alternative I want to tell you about that is legally binding but does rise to the level of courtroom-style legal action, which can be time-consuming and expensive.

You could contact the offending party and suggest mediation or arbitration, also known as alternative dispute resolution.

This path can lead to some sort of settlement. Meaning they agree to pay you a certain amount of money to compensate you for the damages you suffered from the theft. Of course, if you don’t like the settlement offer, you don’t have to take it and can always sue.

Being Proactive with IP Theft Protection

Of course, your first step should be to proactively protect yourself from IP theft. That means using copyright, trademark, and other laws to your advantage.

You should realize that from the moment you create your own original work, you are the copyright owner. You don’t have to officially file for a copyright to be legally protected. But you should do so to enhance the protection of your original works. This means registering that work with the U.S. Copyright Office

Only when you take this step can you enforce your copyright – and punish violators – through litigation and get monetary compensation for any damages you have suffered.

Where to Go From Here

Unfortunately, theft of intellectual property is commonplace in our digital way of doing business these days. 

But that doesn’t mean you have to take it.

Your ideas and your work have tremendous value. And you now have several avenues for protecting it and punishing those who have stolen it.