The Thieves Are Out There: Protect Your Intellectual Property

As a writer, trainer, speaker, or consultant you create valuable intellectual property. You must protect your IP, because it’s at least part of how you earn your living. Most people are sensible, honest, and fair when it comes to these matters. Sadly, a few are not.

After writing for publication for more than 40 years and being a public speaker for nearly 30, I’ve had both amusing and dismaying experiences in which people have misappropriated my IP. You can’t protect yourself against all such offenses, but here I share some of my stories so you can be alert for similar problems with your own creations.

The Paraphrasing

I once read an article about a software quality technique called inspection, a form of technical peer review, in a respected software journal. The author was a man of unimpeachable integrity, a titan of the industry whom I admire greatly. Someone else, whom I didn’t know, had written an accompanying two-page sidebar that presented an overview of software peer reviews. As I read the sidebar, I found myself nodding along, agreeing with what it said. Eventually, I realized why: I had written it!

This sidebar was nothing but a condensation and paraphrasing of an article of mine that had appeared in a different magazine several years earlier. I’m the only person who ever would have noticed that connection — and I did. However, the author of the sidebar didn’t cite my article, nor did she have permission from either me or that earlier magazine for this adaptation.

I easily convinced the journal’s editor of the similarities between my article and the sidebar. Though the violation wasn’t his fault, he issued a clarification and apology in the next issue. I also emailed the sidebar’s author; she never replied.

Had the author contacted me in advance and asked about presenting this summary — with due credit given to the original source — I would have said fine and thanked her for her interest in my work. Instead, she simply took my material, rephrased it somewhat, and presented it as her own. That’s not fine.

The Mystery Slide

Not everyone who misappropriates someone else’s IP is malicious. Some are just sloppy, and others don’t know the original source. I was sitting with a friend at a conference. The talk was on some aspect of software requirements, a field in which my friend and I had both done quite a lot of work. The speaker showed a slide and said, “I’m not sure where I found this.” My friend grinned at me and whispered, “I think I know.”

The slide was pulled right out of one of my training courses. This was flattering, naturally, but also curious. I had never taught that course at the speaker’s company, so I’m not sure how he got it. After the talk, I told him where that slide had originated. He apologized, and I told him he could continue to use it if he added a reference to the source.

The New Authors

I recently discovered one of my articles posted on three unrelated websites. On one, no author was identified, implying that the website’s owner wrote the piece. I called the owner, who agreed to show my name as the author, as he should have done in the first place. On the other two sites, different people showed their own names as the author, even though the article was lifted nearly verbatim from my site.

It’s highly irritating to have other people claim my work as their own. I work hard on the things I write; you do too. What are people thinking when they steal someone else’s work like this?

The Incomplete Theft

My websites have long offered downloads of document templates and other work aids for personal and project use. I once discovered another website that had one of the same templates available. Their template was identical to mine, except that someone had replaced my copyright notice with her own. That is not legal.

When I pointed this out, the woman I contacted initially claimed she had created her template prior to mine, so therefore I was the copyright violator. I then called her attention to the Microsoft Word document properties for her file, where my name still appeared as the author! She reluctantly acknowledged that mine was the original and agreed to take hers down. If you’re going to steal something, you really ought to do it properly.

The Condensation

I received an email from someone I didn’t know, asking if my Software Requirements book was in the public domain. I told her it was not. She had spotted an article that clearly was cribbed from that book, but the book wasn’t referenced. I contacted the author and learned that this was the first in a series of three articles, indeed drawn from my book, without citation or permission.

This author was not an American, although he lived in the United States. He told me that summarizing another author’s work like this was considered a compliment in his home country. I explained that it was considered plagiarism in the United States. Plagiarism involves claiming someone else’s words as your own. Copyright infringement involves the unauthorized use of material that is protected by copyright. This instance appeared to be both. It was too late to withdraw part two of the series from the publication cycle, but we got my name listed as a co-author for part three, along with the reference to my book.

This is not an ego thing, insisting that I receive full credit for my work. Rather, I need to protect the material I’ve created — with considerable effort — so the ownership and any revenues resulting from it remain mine.

The Reposting

Here’s another interesting example of misappropriation. I discovered a website based in another country that had reposted numerous articles that originally were published in Software Development magazine, including several of mine. One problem was that the people who created this website had obtained permission from neither the publisher of Software Development nor the original authors to post these articles. Another problem was that they had moved the original author’s name to the fine print at the end of each article, putting someone else’s name at the top so it looked like that other person wrote it. I worked with the original magazine’s publisher to get that website to halt this unethical practice. It’s a never-ending battle to keep an eye on your IP — if you choose to do so.

The Pure Theft

Within a few weeks of publication of my most recent software book, Software Requirements, 3rd Edition, I found dozens of websites that offered free downloads of the e-book version. I’ve also seen websites and discussion boards where people offered free copies of my e-books to anybody who requested one. Of course, the author doesn’t receive any royalties for such pirated book downloads.

This is unethical and illegal. It is called theft, and it is rampant. It’s often hard to discover how to contact the managers of those sites and persuade them to remove the offending items, though I’ve occasionally succeeded with this strategy. Some sites hide behind the façade that they merely provide links to other sites that are actually doing the stealing, so they aren’t responsible for any wrongdoing. Ooh, I’m sorry, that answer is incorrect, but thanks for playing.

Consequently, I won’t be writing any new technical books. It seems silly to spend hundreds of hours creating a product only to have people steal it. Not everyone who downloads a free book would have bought it anyway, but many industry experts agree that pirated downloads do hurt sales. If you’re only concerned about getting your ideas — and your name — out there, don’t worry about piracy. But if you want to make some money from your hard labor, or even if you simply have an ethic of fairness and honesty, piracy is infuriating.

If you want a book, buy it. Authors work hard on their creations and they’re entitled to compensation for their efforts, even in a world in which so many people seem to think anything on the internet should be free.

The Funniest Case

For more than 20 years I’ve made numerous document templates, checklists, and other resources available for downloading from my website. Some years ago, I stumbled onto another consultant’s site that offered a similar set of downloadable items. Too similar, in fact. The boilerplate text on his page was lifted verbatim from my page, and about half of his items also were mine. He did identify them as being mine, but he hadn’t requested permission to post them.

When I contacted the consultant to inquire about this he ignored me. I tried again. This time he replied but pushed back against my request that he remove my materials from his site. He said, “You don’t have to be a <rude term> about it.” Oh, great, I thought: name-calling escalation. He takes my material without permission and I’m the <rude term>? Ultimately, he apologized for that comment and complied with my removal request.

The funny part? The name of this dude’s company, now long gone, included the word maverick.” A dictionary definition of maverick appeared at the top of each of his web pages: someone who exhibits great independence in thought and action.” Uh-huh.


This article is adapted from Successful Business Analysis Consulting by Karl Wiegers. If you’re interested in software requirements, business analysis, project management, software quality, or consulting, Process Impact provides numerous useful publications, downloads, and other resources.

Author of 12 books on software, design, management, consulting, and a mystery novel. Guitars, wine, and military history fill the voids.

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