What do you do when someone copies your unregistered original work?

The short answer is:  Scare. Them.

When you work hard creating components for your brand, you want them protected.  A registered copyright could be as little as $45 as long as you’re willing and able to file the necessary forms yourself.  Specific circumstances warrant higher costs, and attorney fees are much more expensive.  Still, the investment is worthwhile if you’re serious about your business and your brand.  That said, life happens.  What do you do when you find yourself with a copycat of your unregistered original work?

I have found myself in this position many times.  As a graphic designer selling invitations and other party supplies (totaling thousands of available templates/products), registering the copyright for every design is cost and time prohibitive.  Every few months or so, I will see a reproduction of my work being sold at a much lower cost.  On Etsy, they will not take any action in these cases unless you have a registered copyright.  This stance, while inconvenient, is similar to a court of law.  You cannot initiate a law suit for the unauthorized use of your original work without a registered copyright.  And if you think registering a copyright is time consuming and expensive, just imagine the process of initiating a law suit!  So, I bluff.

How to scare a design thief:

  1. Determine the appropriate recipient (name, address, etc.).
  2. Draft a formal letter on personal letterhead from someone other than you.  (If the stolen design was my husband’s, the letter is from me; if the design was mine, the letter is from my husband.)
  3. Introduce yourself as an individual writing on behalf of the author of the original work.
  4. Sound like a lawyer.  Take a legalese tone but NEVER claim to be a lawyer.
  5. Cite the infringing piece and the original work (include links or copies as applicable as well as dates of origin).
  6. Describe the specific reasons why/how the infringing work is “substantially similar” to the original.  (“Substantially similar” is the legal standard used to determine whether the reproduction rights of a copyright have been infringed.)
  7. Ask the recipient to cease and desist use of the infringing work.
  8. Give a reasonable deadline (depending upon the time needed to remove the work from circulation) and threaten ambiguous further “legal action” in the case of noncompliance. 
  9. Make a declaration of accuracy of the contents of the letter.
  10. Sign the letter.
  11. Mail . . . and cross your fingers!

Below is an example letter available for download.

One thought on “What do you do when someone copies your unregistered original work?

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