How to Protect Your Course from Content Theft
If you’ve spent a lot of time developing your course, you want to protect your intellectual property.
A few years ago, Udemy was the center of a minor scandal in online education when it was discovered that they were inadvertently profiting off stolen courses. Because their revenue came from collecting a percentage of any sale that came through their own advertising, and because they had no review panel for ensuring the content they were advertising hadn’t been stolen, they were making money off referrals to stolen courses that had been posted to their platform.
While these complaints first came to light in 2015, it does not seem as though Udemy’s system for preventing pirated content from making it onto their site has improved. They still rely on users to find and report stolen material themselves, and while they do remove that content, they don’t hunt it down themselves. After all, they have no legal incentive to—the Digital Millennium Copyright Act protects them (and other websites with user-uploaded content, such as YouTube) from being liable for their users’ bad behavior.
What stories like these highlight, however, is that course theft does happen. It’s hard to know how often it happens or how significant a concern it is, but it isn’t unheard of. The question this raises for educators is: how worried should I be, and how can I protect my course?
Before we get started, let’s just reiterate that the content you create on LearnDash is all gated, unless you set your course to be “open.” In all other cases, users will have to register and login to access your course, even if your content is listed as “free.” This won’t stop a course thief, but it does mean that learners can’t access your materials unless they register for your course.
Is content theft something you really need to worry about?
Content theft is an alarming and painful possibility for online educators to contemplate. After putting your heart and soul into a course, the last thing anyone wants is to discover that someone has copied your hard work and taken credit for it. Not only is this a moral offense to your rights as the creator of the content, it can also damage your ability to make money off your intellectual property.
However, before allowing yourself to become alarmed by the potential that your course might get stolen, it’s wise to ask yourself whether it is at all likely. And if it is likely, how much harm does it cause you, and what steps should you take to protect yourself?
1. Not all content sharing is theft, and some amount can be good for your IP.
Defining content theft is not as straightforward as you might think. “Fair use” clauses mean that it’s usually acceptable for someone to take a portion of your material and share it with others. In fact, you’ve probably done this plenty of times yourself, whether you realize it or not.
If you create an infographic and share it on your blog, and someone copies that infographic to their blog, credits you, and links back to your course, that’s all fine and dandy. In fact, this can even be part of a marketing strategy. Creating “viral content” that is mean to be shared and distributed can raise brand awareness for your course and establish your credibility in the industry.
However, if someone is sharing your content without attributing you or linking back to your site, you’re well within your rights to contact them and ask them to give you credit. While it may see like common sense to always give someone credit for their work, these kinds of social protocols can be lost on people who are not very Internet savvy, or who are from a different cultural background. Assume they meant no harm, but do politely stand up for your rights.
2. Learners don’t want to mess up their course progress, so account sharing is less of a concern.
Users do sometimes share passwords to courses that don’t involve much interaction. MasterClass, for instance, offers a series of videos and downloadable PDFs, but there aren’t any quizzes or other meaningful user engagements (even their class forums are slow). For content like this, account sharing is a concern.
However, if your course has meaningful data connected to individual users, password sharing becomes a liability to the learner. Having another user on a course can mess up the original learner’s progress, undermining the whole reason they purchased the course in the first place. If you’ve ever been annoyed at someone messing up your viewing history on Netflix, imagine how much more difficult this would be for someone messing up your course progress—let alone taking your quizzes.
3. Scraping content and repurposing it into something valuable is a lot of work.
The nightmare scenario most course creators have in mind when they imagine someone stealing their IP involves the thief scraping an entire course and presenting it as their own. This can happen, as we talked about with the Udemy example, but it still takes the thief a lot of work.
For someone to steal a course in this way, they first have to buy your course. They then have to transfer all the material into their own system, fix all the links so they don’t point back to your course, edit out any references to you or your work, and delete any watermarks you may have used. Even if they do all this, it’s usually easy to spot when a course is stolen, as these edits affect the quality of the course materials.
A stolen course will never be as valuable as the original, and the hassle of stealing a course may not even be worth it because…
4. Marketing stolen work is difficult, and there are risks to getting caught.
If you’ve created a course, you probably know firsthand that marketing it and drawing in new learners is no cakewalk. It can take many educators years to grow a large following, and many find that marketing takes as much or more time as the course creation did in the first place.
This is the main draw of Udemy for many users—they’re willing to give up a portion of their revenue to let another company market their course. It’s also why course thieves take their content to Udemy—they’re hoping to profit off the free marketing.
Even so, their margins aren’t likely to be very attractive. They may damage your sales a little by offering content for cheaper, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Most learners don’t want to pay for stolen content, especially if there’s a loss in quality, and those that do may not have been willing to spring for your original course in the first place. And while it’s often hard to prosecute online thieves, especially if they’re in a different country, it can still happen.
So, given the effort involved in stealing a course, the risks a thief faces if they get caught, and all they work they still have to put in to marketing and selling a course just to turn a profit, online course theft isn’t a huge concern for most content creators. The reality is that for anyone whose scruples are already so low, there are easier and more reliable ways to make a dishonest dollar.
However, if course theft is still a concern for you, there are steps you can take to protect your IP and make it harder for thieves to pirate it.
5 Techniques to Thwart Content Thieves
It’s probably impossible to stop a truly determined thief. However, most thieves are looking for easy marks, and you can deter a lot of people just by making your course harder than others to steal. Here are a few methods to use.
1. Copyright your work.
In many countries, including the US and the UK, as the creator of a piece of work, you are awarded a copyright automatically. So long as you can show you are the original creator of a piece of work, no one else can claim ownership and prevent you from making money off your IP, unless you sell those rights to them.
However, copyrighting your work is still recommended, as it can grant you extra legal protections in case someone’s theft of your content ever makes it to court. Registering a copyright establishes the paper trail for your claim of ownership, and can make it easier for you to claim economic damages.
In the United States, you can file a copyright claim at the U. S. Copyright Office, where you can register your course even before it is published. You can also use the © mark, indicating that you hold the copyright, while you wait for your work to be registered.
2. Watermark your videos and images.
Branding your content is a good idea in all circumstances. Putting a logo in the corner of your images and videos makes them appear more professional, and it also means that your work will get credited if they are shared around the Internet.
Branded content is also harder to steal. If you include a watermark on your visual content, the course thief will have to crop it out when they go to share it. This usually means zooming in on the image or video, which reduces its quality and makes it appear cheap. Alternatively, they may try to cover it with their own logo or photoshop it out, but all these methods take time. Don’t make it easy.
3. Choose a video streaming service with content protection.
Premium video streaming services, such as Vimeo or Wistia, offer content protection services that make it harder for content to be stolen. These protections include requiring passwords to log in, disabling downloads, and restricting where a video can be embedded.
There are still ways that a determine thief can get around some of these protections, and of course a thief could still steal everything but your videos. But if your video content is a huge portion of your course, this is a reliable way to protect it from all but the most determined and advanced thieves.
4. Prevent concurrent logins.
If you’re struggling with password sharing, as we discussed previously, one way to cut down on the problem is by preventing concurrent logins. This means that if one user is logged in to your program, they will be automatically logged out once another user logs in to the same account.
Of course, the other way to prevent logins (as we hinted earlier) is create content that is unique to each learner, such that sharing a login becomes a problem. This could mean having quizzes that would be disrupted by another user, increasing community engagement, or offering a certificate that can only be awarded to one person.
5. Disable copy and right-click.
I’ve saved this technique for last because, to be honest, I don’t like it. There are plenty of legitimate reasons for your learners to want to use the right-click and copy functions when interacting with your course—including to take notes. Disabling a common function that many of us use instinctively and with no ill intent seems like a sure recipe for learner frustration and usability errors.
However, there’s no denying that this may be the best path forward for someone who is dealing with ongoing content theft issues. If you do find that someone is stealing your content, it may be time to consider this option. There are WordPress plugins that can easily let you do this, such as Disable Right Click for WP, but again, I would avoid this option unless this becomes a real problem for your course.
Make a note to regularly search for course thieves.
If someone has stolen your course, it’s unlikely you’ll find out about it unless you go search for it yourself. Your best defense is a good offense. Make a calendar reminder to check popular sites that allow users to upload and share courses, and take a minute to google for search terms related to you content. You can even search for whole sentences in your course description to see if anything comes up.
If you find that someone has stolen your course, notify the hub. Any legitimate company (meaning one that isn’t trying to profit off pirated courses) has a legal obligation to take down stolen content.
Hopefully you won’t find any content thieves. But while you’re searching, take a minute to scope out the competition. You may just learn something valuable about how they’re marketing themselves that may inspire your own efforts.