Before You Try To Protect Your Online Course From Thieves, Know That No Method Is Foolproof. That’s Why We Aim To Convert Our Smartest Thieves Into Affiliates
You can hire the best Intellectual Property attorneys in town, but clever thieves only get cleverer by the day. Online course-creators really have no choice. You can do your best to protect your online courses, but every now and again, the pirates will outsmart you.
Some course-creators have a fit when their course videos or downloadable courseware gets pinched and resold under another brand name. Some other course-creators though adopt a more blasé attitude.
They figure that a little thievery actually may end up promoting their original courses, especially if the thieves are not ultra-careful. Some thieves do such a scrappy pinching job at speed, that they forget to clean up fully, and they leave many clues that lead back to your original course.
At Solohacks Academy, we believe in doing everything legal to protect our brainchild, but beyond that if we spot a reasonably intelligent thief, we make him an affiliate earning offer he cannot refuse. He knows we know about him, so he gladly takes us up on the offer and we have a win-win.
1. Learn about copyrights and trademarks for your online course: understand both the process and its limitations
There are many online course authors who aren’t aware to the fine nunaces of certain legal protection terms for intellectual property (and your online course is your intellectual property). Do you, for instance, clearly know the difference between copyrights, trademarks, and registered trademarks? Do you know how exactly they can protect your course? Well, if you are not clear, you should read up on all this.
I have done a whole article titled “How To Protect Your Brand And Its Assets In Knowledge Commerce“.
Check it out because I’ve covered every question you may have in mind to ask:
- What exactly is copyright?
- What can you copyright?
- What does copyright entitle you to do?
- Does your copyright have a time limitation?
- Do you need to register a copyright?
- How do you correctly state your copyright?
- Why get your copyright registered?
- What is infringement of copyright?
- How can you discover if someone has infringed your copyright?
- What is a trademark and how is it different from a copyright?
- Should you get a country-wise trademark or an international one?
- What is the difference between a trademark and a registered trademark?
- When can someone use your trademark and get away with it?
- What are the most common mistakes people make with trademarks?
- Why is plagiarism so hard to check?
- 3 protection tools to use against those pesky plagiarists
There are just a few of the common questions most authors ask. There are many more in my article. It’s worth a read – and worth preserving too.
2. Do what you need to do to establish prior ownership of your online course: if it gets into court, your date and time of publishing has to be earliest
Legal protections of various levels (like copyrights, trademarks, and registered trademarks) are important when you want to take action against a course thief, and have to prove that you are the real owner of the original work. Without the legal protection it’s hard for you to prove this – especially if the thief challenges who was the earlier author, and makes you look like a later plagiarist of his original work.
The most important aspect in proving you are the original owner of the work is the date of publishing. But, as we all know, many people who are master thieves try to fudge this date so that they can look like the original owner. So how do you practically have the proof of earlier ownership? There are two things you can do:
Take a hard-copy of your entire course content and postal-mail it to yourself as a recorded delivery
When you printout the course, remember to also print out all your draft-versions of course-creation – like your curriculum plan, your content planning mindmaps, your lesson plans, and video-scripts. Put together a printout set of all the content you created as different phases of development or versions of your course, before you settled on the final version. You will then have a hard-copy of every kind of proof of the stages you went through to create your course, recorded by the Postal Department as mailed to your physical address. Nothing can beat hard-copy postal proof in a court of law if you want to establish the date of preparation and publishing of your course. Let’s see your thief matching this record.
Make sure every part of your course is time-stamped for your total protection
A time-stamp is just proof that your course was published on a specific date and time. Normally, if you were creating your course on your website, you would get a date and time of publishing from your site data. But since some tampering is possible with time stamps, there are also some “time-stamp certifying authorities” who can verify and validate your time-stamp. This is a good move, to get an authoritative third-party verified time-stamp.
InfoCert Qualified TSA and Ascertia Secure Time Stamp Authority (TSA) are two time-stamp authorities with whom you can work to get your time-stamp validated. These organisations may cost a bit and have overlong processes, but if your course is truly one-of-a-kind and worth protecting at any cost, you can approach these authorities.
3. Learn about watermarking video, audio and textual content: do it without jarring your own students, though, because watermarking can be distracting at times
By far the easiest method of protecting your images, audio and video content is by a process called “Digital Watermarking”. The leading company in this business is Digimarc.
What are “watermarks” for protecting images, audio and video?
The dictionary defines watermarks as “a faint design made in some paper during manufacture that is visible when held against the light and typically identifies the maker.” In the online world of content theft, a watermark would be best described as “… a logo, text, or pattern that is intentionally superimposed onto another image. Its purpose is to make it more difficult for the original image to be copied or used without permission.”
Watermarks can be either of the faintly visible variety, or even the invisible variety. Marketers often debate whether watermarks on images, audio, or videos should be visible or invisible – they wonder which method deters thieves more? I would say, use both.
How do you watermark images?
Photo editing software like Photoshop usually allows you to apply a visible watermark (or an invisible Digimarc watermark) on your images. For the visible watermark, you can add a Photoshop layer with a faint font-color and maybe apply your logo like a stamp on the image.
For the invisible Digimarc watermark, you may have to buy a package from Digimarc at a little over $100. It works by applying a small amount of “digital noise” to your image, and thus creates a pattern unique to your photo. This pattern is invisible to the human eye, but readable through software like Photoshop – so you can check if it’s your invisibly watermarked photo the thieves have taken.
How do you watermark audios and videos?
Again, you can include a message to say the sound or video file is your copyright. Here’s one way to lightly and visibly watermark videos, for example …
You can also watermark audios and videos in a way indiscernible and inaudible to the human eye or ear, but discernible to a watermark reader. Digimarc can introduce slight audio or video distortion which the human eye or ear cannot catch, but you can then catch out thieves if you have the Digimarc identifiers.
Visible watermarking should be subtle enough not to distract your course students
Protecting your video and course materials from pirates with visible watermarks should not end up irritating students. Any text or brand marking that sticks on a screen, or scrolls along with every screen, can be distracting to a keen student’s eye. That’s why watermarks should be as subtle and discreet as possible. There needs to be transparency in the watermark layer so it seems not to affect the content behind it.
4. Your face needs to be visible from screen to screen: make it hard for a thief to redo the entire videos with his face instead of yours
There’s no doubt that if your teaching videos need to be protected, your face should be on it. There is a general feeling in the market, among online course experts, that if your own face, as your most distinguishable branding element, is on your videos, people will be deterred from copying your video.
I like the approach Sarah Cordiner takes in her article “14 Ways To Protect The Intellectual Property of Your Online Course”
The first way I protect my content is to make almost all of my training videos and course content in ‘talking head’ video format – literally meaning that it is my face on the screen delivering the training.
Regardless of who is watching it and how they obtained it, it is still me who is clearly the expert. It is still ME, my face, my words, my head, my name, that is being presented to the audience – which means that I am the only one who can get the credit for it, or any subsequent business from it.”
While I mostly agree with Sarah Cordiner, I find that her idea works for videos where online teachers prefer to record themselves speaking out the lesson. But, what of the many people who are camera shy, and may like to use a still image of their faces in a corner of the screen instead? Could a course thief not just overlay his own mugshot over the course-author’s face photo and re-render the video to look like his own?
I have always pondered this question, till I saw one ultra smart video that showed the author’s face as a still-picture, as lightly as a watermark in the background of every slide.
Your face as a watermark would make for an un-stealable video
Here is how it would look if I did that with my videos … see the images below. In the first image here it would be simple for the thief to over-paste his photo on top of mine, because the photo is separated from the rest of the screen elements. Whereas, in the second image, my photo has been made into a 70% transparent sub-layer under the text – which the thief would find very hard to over-paste with his own photo.
Now, let’s see a thief try to steal this video. He will spend all his days trying to erase my photo, but to no effect.
5. Make a loud hoo-ha at the time of your online course launch: let people online know and associate your course with your brand and no other
If there’s one dictum that always works online, it is to make such a loud noise at the launch of your course that everybody – and his grandmother – will inexorably associate your course with you, and no one else. That’s why a lot of course-creators allow themselves to have huge launch promotion budgets.
Don’t spare a thing. Go whole hog on a launch blitzkrieg
Publish a spate of blog posts and social media updates, host some very attractive webinars, do a lot of guest posting, hire the best PR agencies who will tom-tom your course everywhere that matters, add your course to your email signature, rope in influencer marketing, set up affiliate marketing, give interviews for A-lister podcasts … do the works. Launch time is the best time to get your course associated memorably with your brand. So if this is the course-protection tactic that most appeals to you, spare no expense.
Some course-creators like to get their names into their course titles
Having your name as the course-creator somehow included cleverly in the title of your courses can make the link between you and your course inextricable. For example, a client of mine is an elderly lady who has taught grammar all her life to school students and now plans to run a series of online courses (trademarked, of course). She has planned to title them all like this: Gramma & Spelling, Gramma & Punctuation, Gramma & Alliteration, and so on. She has chosen to brand herself as “Gramma” which reminds everyone of “grammar” and distinguishes her as a highly experienced brand of top-class expertise in grammar.
Book authors and newsletter authors often get the idea right, when they use their names to title their books and newsletters. They are worth looking at for examples of how to link your course title to your own name. For example, a colleague of mine whose name is Meera Sharath Chandra has written a trademarked book on branding and consumers called “The Me Era™”. Likewise, the top influencer Ann Handley has called her newsletter “Total Annarchy”. Ideas like these could easily extend to course titles.
6. There are some good methods out there to catch pirated editions of your course: get help to monitor and take down those thieves, even if costs a little
I’m not sure if you’ve heard about the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act Services Ltd.), but if you haven’t you absolutely should read up every inch of their website. They are a firm that offers every kind of protection any website may need, from A-Z … covering all manner of brand assets on the website, including your online courses. Since most of us, Knowledge Commerce marketers, work off our websites which are the main repositories of all our brand assets, working with DMCA is a terrific option.
Despite the range of services they offer, their charges are small – starting at about $10 a month for protection and going up to $99 if you should need their help to take down a thief’s website.
I’ve given you a screenshot of their website below. Visit their site to see how many types of protection they give to the brand assets on your site, and how they also engage in monitoring and full takedown services if they find theft from your site. In fact, if your site sports their badge, they even offer to “do take-down free of charge”.
They even advise you on compliance issues, and maintain a record of your support cases, apart from having a vast and up-to-date knowledge database on brand protection.
At Solohacks Academy, we have found the DMCA service really inexpensive and yet very exhaustive. And we get no brownie points or affiliate fees for saying so.
7. See if you can add something to your course that a pirate can never add: for instance, how about throwing in some one-on-one mentoring sessions
Some course-authors throw in a bit of free access to themselves with their courses. They think it will increase the value perception of the course. They also believe it will create a validation for the money charged. But those are not the only reasons why you need to add some access to yourself for students – there’s another important reason too.
Add your personal availability to students to make your course piracy safe
People can copy every word of your course text and videos. They can copy your downloadable worksheets, if you have them as extras to your course. But they can never replicate your after-or-during-course “group Q & A discussions, masterminds or workshops”. This is where readers can have access to you directly. Add these free to your course. Make these interactive sessions about “brainstorming” about the ideas in your course.
If you can build a Facebook Group where students of your course can congregate, and share ideas and opinions on an ongoing basis, all the better. The increasing numbers of old and new students can make the group lively and an interesting hangout.
The idea is to be able to offer that extra personal contact that goes beyond the modules of your course. Nobody can pinch the unique value your personal touch and accessibility can offer, even if they pinch your course wholesale.
8. Have a new updated version of your online course, every now and again: the pirates seldom do a catch up once they’re satisfied with their first pinch
When your online course demands it – for example, when technology changes – you may have to modify or upgrade the contents of your course. This is something every course-marketer would do anyway. But have you ever considered “versioning” your course as a way of protecting it from pirates and thieves online?
Most course thieves never bother with upgrading the courses they pinch, and that’s your opportunity
Course thieves generally never make enough money on any one course they pinch. You’d mostly find them pinching several different courses from several different sites, and presenting it as their “repertoire”. The result of such behavior is that they may never re-visit your site once they are done with the initial robbing of your course contents.
If you are smart you should periodically – say, every three months – version up your course. For example, your first launched course may be “How To Write Polished Blog Posts v.1”. Three months later you can make it “How To Write Polished Blog Posts v.2” saying you have updated the many languages your course can be translated into. Three months later make it “How To Write Polished Blog Posts v.3” where you say you’ve added two special interviews with two major influencers in your niche.
This tactic of versioning works well when the thief hasn’t even bothered to rename the course and still has the name you originally gave it (aka “How To Write Polished Blog Posts v.1”). If you have upgraded to “How To Write Polished Blog Posts v.3” Google may show both courses to a searcher, but your listing will be showing the more updated course than the thief has on his listing.
You will always be ahead of the thieves who pinched your first course, especially if you add next to your course one sentence, like this:
“We keep adding new content every quarter, available ONLY on our course on our site. So make sure you get the best and latest course which is Version 3 so far. And yes, old students can continue to access the course for the new stuff – that’s an unmissable free upgrade.”
9. Use the latest technology available to forestall piracy: Artificial Intelligence can now be used to track and descend heavily on infringements at source
Yes, you have to stay abreast of new technology to create your courses. But shouldn’t you also use cutting-edge technology to track and remove illegal content at the source, to increase your copyright’s lifetime value. How do you do that?
There are a new breed of Artificial-Intelligence-led solutions in the market that can do this for your online courses – and indeed for all your brand assets. For example, check out RedPoints.
Businesses like RedPoints work at high-speed thanks to use of AI technology
Speed makes all the difference when tracking and bringing down pirates. What’s the point of wasting weeks and months detecting your pirates and thieves, by which time they’ve made enough money on your cloned course to not care if they are taken down? Businesses like RedPoints keep your courses safe online using Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology that automates the full process from detection to removal.
RedPoints’ AI bots crawl, at high velocity, through all possible sources where pirates may store your pinched course info, like cyberlockers, apps, social, streaming and P2P platforms. They also get intensely familiar with your online course and its smallest assets, and use machine learning and “detection history” to add new search rules when they crawl for duplicates and pirates.
Then they pounce on these “infringers” with high speed to take down sites immediately. Removal and “deindex” requests are sent instantly using automation rules. Between the detection of pirates and sending removal notices to them, there is hardly any time gap. There is also removal follow up by piracy experts who may pursue out-of-court actions to stop further violations.
With all this, you also get a live dashboard to show you how RedPoints are acting on your behalf, what piracy results they have searched and found, and how many have been acted on already, how many are being acted on presently, and what’s the end result for you.
We just wanted to show you that there is Artificial Intelligence now to our aid
At Solohacks Academy, we are not affiliates of RedPoints, nor do we get anything by talking about them here. But we are in awe of organizations like them that are using the latest AI technology for the very thing that was the bugbear of all of us course-creators. We have all been ruing how cumbersome and tedious the process of discovering and bring down pirates has been so far – but not anymore.
We just wanted to alert you that you now have Artificial Intelligence solutions that use lightning speed of process to put the pirates out of business before they have even put up their course (your course!) for the intake of students.
10. Pick the best pirates of your work you can find, and show them the math: show how they can earn more as your affiliates than as thieves
We have discovered two important things about pirates – and this discovery has helped us convert many of the course-pirates into high-earning affiliates. Here’s what we found out about them:
- Course-pirates are smart chaps. They know their trade very well. They are ambitious guys, they are earnings-minded, and they look to grow fast. They want to see money the minute they set up shop. In short, they have all the hallmarks of good marketers except that they seek to find shortcuts to product (course) production.
- The problem with them is not that they are bad chaps intrinsically, but they are either lazy to create courses or bad at creating them. Since their forte is marketing but not product-creation, they seek a way out by finding readymade products to steal, whereupon they can unleash their awesome marketing skills.
How to turn thieves from the path of “competition” into “co-petition”
We thought long and hard about these pirates and how talented they were at marketing. So we decided to make them part of our marketing network instead of adversaries. We wrote emails (via our attorney) to a few of the smartest course-pirates, to this effect:
“We have found out that you have pinched our course (which we have the copyright on) and we can take you down at a moment’s notice without your being able to do business again on the Internet.
But we don’t want to take this route, because we have also seen your terrific strengths as a marketer, and we know you can earn higher than you do presently with the counterfeit of our course. Having to live in constant fear of being found out is limiting your ability to make even more money. So we have a deal for you.
Bring down the counterfeit of our course, pronto, and sell our original course instead. We’ll give you a 70% affiliate commission (that our other affiliates don’t get). This is a one-time offer as a recognition for your marketing skills that we’ve noticed. By selling the counterfeit-course how much do you make really, after all your overhead costs are deducted? We figure you can make more than that, with no overheads, if you were to use all your talents to market our original course.
You can get us referral customers at these high commission rates, and you can also get us more second-tier affiliates from whose commission you can get a good cut.
We hope we are able to convince you to sell the real thing (our original course) at handsome legal earnings, without constantly looking over your shoulder for that legal notice we are sure to send you otherwise etc. etc.”
Moral of the story? If you can’t beat them, empanel them
We are happy to inform all who are reading this article that this method has worked so well, we have now a set of pirate-turned-affiliates who are amongst our top course referrers.
So What Are Your Thoughts? Do Share!
This post is incomplete without your input. The community of Knowledge Commerce solopreneurs would feel galvanized to hear from you … so do share your thoughts on this topic with us, in the comments field below this post.
Related Articles From Our “Creating And Promoting Courses For Knowledge Commerce: Guide”
- How To Pick The Best Online Course Topics … 10 Unbeatable Strategies
- How To Create Engaging Online Course Content … 10 Pro Techniques
- How To Produce Course Videos With Classiness … 10 Crucial Tactics
- How To Structure An Online Course With Ease … 10 Uncomplicated Hacks
- How To Market Online Courses To Galvanize Sales … 10 Quick Tricks
- How To Teach Online Courses With Great Skill … 10 Captivating Ways
- How To Create A Sales Funnel For Your Online Course … 10 Step Cycle
- How To Price Your Online Course For High Revenues … 10 Mighty Hints
- How To Evaluate Your Online Course With Student Eyes … 10 Key Factors