Have you Googled your firm lately? Not to monitor search-engine ranking or online reputation, but your unique message -- and who, besides your firm, might be spreading it.

Andrew Rose, director of marketing and business development at Maryland CPA firm Naden/Lean and self-professed "search engine geek," has found himself hitting the Google button more frequently after discovering that an accounting firm Web site designed by a fellow Association for Accounting Marketing member featured content stolen from another firm.

Already a regular at using Google to search for quotation-mark-enclosed unique phrases from his firm's Web site a few times a year, Rose was compelled to step up his efforts. Those investigations produced at least 300 instances of stolen material around the Web, to which, as the primary author, he took personal offense.

He also took action, contacting 30 to 35 firms in the last few years regarding the plagiarism. "It was too much time to go after every one individually," he explained. "The bell had been rung too hard, and there was no way to get that back."

What he couldn't reclaim, he elaborated, was the search-engine ranking the offending CPA firm had achieved through the theft.

 

PREVENTION

With the firms he did pursue, Rose followed specific steps recommended by Kimberly Grimsley, a partner in Maryland law firm Bowie & Jensen's intellectual property department and head of its trademark group.

Grimsley's proposed actions, however, follow several preventative ones that are also endorsed by attorney Richard Keyt, founder of Phoenix law firm KeytLaw, whose practice areas include business law and contracts.

Before contacting offending firms or even launching search-engine probes -- Keyt also recommends Copyscape.com to seek out copied content -- both attorneys advise accounting firms to evaluate their copyright options. Under U.S. copyright law, authors and artists have exclusive rights to make and sell copies of their works, create derivative works, and perform or display these works publicly.

But there are two exceptions, according to Keyt. The first is if the person is hired to create those copyrightable works, in which case the employer owns them under the scope of employment. The second is if the author or artist signs a work-for-hire agreement, which gives those rights to the person or entity paying for the service.

"A smart employer, to avoid getting into a 'he said, she said,' will have something in writing that any works created belong to the employer," Keyt explained. "It's an issue a lot of companies are not aware of. Typically, a company hires outside firms to create marketing, images and text, and the outside firm owns the copyright to anything they create and can use images and text somewhere else. It's really important when hiring an outside person or company that they have a work-for-hire agreement that says the person is paying money to own the copyright."

It's the outsourcing of their marketing collateral that often gets firms in trouble with stolen content, as Rose and other firm marketers have found when they contact firms that claim to be completely unaware of their copyright-infringing Web sites. Rose explained that one well-known "cheap-o" Web company in particular is a common violator with the firms he has contacted. For better protection against these infringements, firms should consider registering their copyrights, both Keyt and Grimsley advise.

"The next issue is what rights the copyright owner has if someone infringes on their work," Keyt continued. "There are not a whole lot of rights if they haven't registered the copyright, but there are a lot of powerful weapons if it is registered. They are not required to register -- you can write and put an article on the Web site, put a copyright notice and copyright symbol with the year and your name. That notice should always be put on works ... if doing the text on the site, at least as a footer. But you either have virtually no weapons against an infringer or a powerful one, depending if you register. People invest significant amounts of money and effort, so if they care about protecting the copyright, they should register with the Copyright Office."

The "pretty easy" process involves filling out a two-page form, which can be completed online, sending two copies of the work, and paying $35 to the Copyright Office. For firms producing a significant amount of content through white papers, articles and Web site text, Keyt recommends that they register their content once a quarter, as the registration window is 90 days, and registration, once acquired, will protect those works from Day One. All firms, regardless of content output, should consider registering copyrights, the two attorneys stated, though many do not.

"More often than not, people put stuff online and don't copyright it," Keyt continued. "A lot of time and money is being invested in original content and they should. If you're a one-person business, that's you, and if you're a company and have employees, it's simple to make that part of somebody's duty to, every 90 days, gather up the copyrightable works, make copies and register to the Copyright Office using the [online] wizard and upload."

"It's a good idea as a matter of practice to do it," Grimsley said. "Practically speaking, I don't see a lot of businesses doing it. Practically speaking, I don't see it as much for a Web site, but it is beneficial."

 

ACTION

Without a registered copyright, the firm can file for an injunction prohibiting further infringement, but with registration it can also sue for statutory damages of up to $150,000 per infringement. If the firm wins, they are also entitled to attorney fees.

But whether firms choose to go the registered route or not, the steps Rose has made practice, and Keyt and Grimsley recommend, should be exhausted before legal action.

"Typically, if you pick up the phone or send a letter saying, 'You have my work up there without credit, you have to take it down,' many times, they will," Keyt shared.

This gentler method can also lead to the two firms striking up a mutually beneficial agreement in which the initial infringer continues to share the firm's content, but with proper credit, Grimsley explained, spreading it to a larger audience. The communication could also initiate a more long-term working relationship of referrals and shared content between the two firms.

After following Rose's lead and discovering that at least 30 firms had lifted unique copy she had written for her firm's Web site, fellow AAM member Katie Tolin, director of practice growth for Ohio CPA and business consulting firm Rea & Associates, has also joined Rose in doing the courtesy of initially reaching out to any offending firms that are also AAM members via phone.

If that phone call or an e-mail doesn't work, or firms would prefer to skip to the next step, they can send a cease-and-desist letter to the infringing firm, though Keyt cautions that, in his experience, they are generally ignored, unless they include the possibility of a lawsuit - and that $150,000 per infringement threat - that registered copyrights provide.

When accounting firms have ignored Rose's phone calls and e-mails (with receipt notification), he sends a cease-and-desist letter through certified mail stating that the infringing firm has 10 days to change the content or take it down.

Most firms will have complied by that point, according to Rose, Grimsley and Keyt, but for those that don't, Rose has sent take-down notices to the firm's Internet service providers, alerting them to the stolen work. Here, again, copyright registration increases urgency and the likelihood of swift action.

The marketers and attorneys acknowledge that the Internet has made it inherently easier for accounting firms, their marketing consultants and Web users in general to steal and repurpose content, but that hasn't curbed the sense of violation. "I take a lot of pride in how I craft this content and copyright law is pretty sacred in this country... [The infringing firms] are lazy," Rose shared. "Law firms and banks don't steal from each other, but CPAs do it all the time."

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