Q: I am the editor in chief of a high school newspaper. I just learned a website in another state reprinted — word for word — a recent story and a photo we published online. They never asked for permission. Is there anything we can do?
A: Unfortunately, the situation you describe is becoming increasingly common.
Your writer and photographer own the copyrights to their work and get to control how their work is used by others. But before going in with legal guns blazing, think about what you want. Do you just want the material removed? Are you seeking some sort of payment for their unauthorized use? Do you just want credit? Some student media may actually see a benefit to having their stories and photos shared to a larger audience, but want it done the right way (prior permission sought and proper attribution provided).
Once you’ve decided what you want, the standard play is to send the infringer a cease and desist (C&D) letter in which you claim ownership to the copyrighted material and state your demands. (Here is a sample C&D letter created by the National Press Photographers Association.) In some cases — particularly if working with a known source (e.g., a local news site) — a phone call or less formal e-mail explaining the situation and asking for a fix — may be the better initial option.
If your initial request is ignored, I typically suggest to student media that they follow up by re-sending the letter by certified mail with a return-receipt requested. This often helps focus the recipient’s attention and provides the start of a paper trail, should that become necessary. If your demands are ignored your next step may be to take legal action.
Since you say your article was published online, you may also be able to send the offending Web site’s host a Takedown Notice pursuant to the federal Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). While a detailed discussion is beyond the scope of what we can offer now, here’s a short article that provides a bit more explanation. You can also contact us at the SPLC to discuss further.