Tuesday, May 22, 2012

What To Do If Your Manuscript is Stolen

I think it's safe to say that at this point, you are probably aware of the fact that my manuscript was stolen and leaked to the internet.  And it stunk.  A lot.  But, you are also probably aware that I fought for my book and got it back.  (Hooray!)   As stinky as this situation was, it was a wake-up call to the serious threat of copyright infringement.  I can't take back what happened, but I can move forward from here.  And better yet, I can share my crash-course in copyright protection with you!

My Manuscript Theft Monster had several heads, and I'll go through each one in the hope that this information will help protect YOU someday.  This advice comes from the combined efforts of a wonderful copyright attorney, irreplaceable friends and colleagues, and my own hours spent desperately scouring the internet for answers.  Please remember that I am not an expert, though, and that the below information is simply the best advice I can give you.

Problem 1: I'd first like to say that this theft all came down to bad luck.  I was part of an online critique group where we shared our manuscripts with each other using a private Wordpress blog.  The blog got hacked.  Some of our manuscripts were leaked to the internet.  Mine was one of them.  It was nobody's fault--and everybody's fault--at the same time.  No one ever thinks their site will be hacked, but if it happened to us, it can happen to you.

What should you do if your blog is hacked and documents are stolen?

-Shut it down.  Web-crawlers and robot-hackers create back-doors that allow them to keep sneaking in, even after you have re-secured your blog.

-When you shut it down, delete ALL your files and media one by one.  Choose an option like "Delete Permanently."  Contact the host's support network to ensure everything has truly been deleted from the server.  (Read more on the step-by-step process here.)

-Use robots.txt coding to block current and future web-crawler access.  You can find out more about that here.  I don't entirely understand the mechanics of it, but it's really something you need to be aware of.

What can you do to protect your blog or website from hackers? 

-Don't post your full manuscript online.  Never.  Ever.  EVER.  Even if you think a site is "private" or "secure," you could be in for a very rude awakening.

-Be sure to perform all blog or site updates and change your passwords frequently.  Check your security settings often.  If you aren't the blog or site moderator, make sure that he or she is doing all of these things.  Remember: Even if you aren't in charge, you are still responsible for the safety of your property.

Problem 2: An enormous issue that came up during this mess was that SOMEHOW, my manuscript was available for all the world to see as a Google doc.  I'm not kidding.  You typed in my book title and voila!  The entire manuscript popped up as the first search result--a sitting duck just ripe for plucking.  (How it got on Google docs remains a mystery to us all...)  And even worse, it didn't go away after we deleted the blog!

So, what the schnox is going on if you have deleted your online documents, but your manuscript still shows up on the internet?!

-It means your file is cached.  Often when a website or page is deactivated, it will still show up as a cached version in the search engine's results--meaning you can still see everything when you click on the link.

-If you have already deleted your site/blog/source files, you are probably in okay shape and just need to sit tight until the page registers as a "dead" link.  (i.e., you get that "404 Error Message.")  If you don't know where your document is leaking from, find out and contact the site.  You can't do anything until you stop the leak.  But once you do, then you can...

Clear the Caches! 

-Even after you get the "404 Error Message," your dead link will still show up in an engine's search results--in our case, Google.  You want that page gone, especially since you never know if it will spontaneously activate again.

-While Google's crawlers will remove the dead links "eventually," everything I read said it could take three days to three months.  NOT acceptable in this situation.

-You can force-clear your cached page (again, only if it shows "404 Error") by going to support.google.com/webmasters and following the directions to request a page removal.

-Keep in mind that the requests take time to go through.  Be patient, and if it is denied, just try again.  Once it's approved, the page will no longer appear in the search results.  (Yay!)
Problem 3: The third monstrous issue that sprouted from the hack was that my manuscript was posted to illegal downloading sites.  I can tell you, this was not an easy battle.  The illegal sites are bullies and will make it sound like YOU are in the wrong.  Don't let them push you around!

Know your DMCA rights!  

-The "Digital Millennium Copyright Act" protects the rightful owners of digital books, art, music, videos, games, etc.  It states that the distributing and downloading of files without the explicit permission of the copyright owner is ILLEGAL!   

-Writers/artists/musicians/etc. who don't own the actual copyrights are still considered legal owners under "Intellectual Property Rights."

-Your years of drafts, dozens of submissions, and army of angry family and friends PROVE it's yours.

Okay, so how the heck are you supposed to stop those illegal sites?!

-Write a DMCA letter!  Most sites will have a link to their DMCA infringement claim procedure.  (You'll likely have to hunt for it, and foreign sites might not have it at all.)

-Make sure you follow their many instructions.  There are a lot of hoops to jump through, but now is NOT the time to cut corners.

-Be polite and professional, but firm.  (This is one of those, "You catch more bees with honey than vinegar" situations.)

-Be patient.  This process can take awhile.  (I sent follow up letters once a week.)

-If at first you don't succeed, keep sending letters!  (Mine became progressively less polite, but eventually got results!)

Hopefully, if you follow the above advice, you will emerge triumphant from your battle!  But alas--the war will never truly be over.  Other monsters can still rear their ugly heads, from more illegal sites posting your property to deceased links and pages coming back from the dead.  You can't know who has your work and what they may be doing with it, but you can take steps to protect yourself.

Protect yourself by: 

-Setting Google alerts.  They're easy to create at www.google.com/alerts.  Set alerts on your name, your book title, characters, etc.  (This is a good thing to set up regardless of whether or not your work has been stolen.  You never know what pictures or information might pop up about you online...)

-Apply those robot.txt codes to your websites and blogs.

-Remember to update your blogs and sites frequently.

-If you want to purchase the official copyright for your manuscript, you can do so at www.copyright.gov/eco/.  I can't tell you whether or not you should do this, but it's only $35.00 if it helps you sleep better at night.

And most importantly....


I hope this information has been helpful to you.  Dealing with copyright infringement is no fun at all, but perhaps my experience will aid you in your own battle, or help you avoid getting into one in the first place.  

But if you find yourself stuck in my stinky situation, please remember these few things:

-Don't panic.  It may seem like the end of your life, but it's not.  In this tech-driven world, manuscript piracy is becoming more common and won't result in a black mark by your name. 

-Don't throw things.  All of the above actions take time.  Weeks may pass before you get an answer to your letter or finally clear a stubborn cache.  It may be incredibly frustrating, but throwing your computer out the window will not get you faster results.

-Eat lots of ice cream.  Goodness knows you deserve it.

-Don't blab to the world.  You may want to lament your woes on Facebook, but try to keep the situation quiet until you've done some damage control.  You don't want to draw more attention to yourself.

-Be vigilant.  Only YOU can protect your property.  Don't ever take your security for granted!

And above all...

-DON'T GIVE UP!  You CAN fight copyright infringement and you CAN win!   

Ellis says, "Fight! Fight! FIGHT!"

Note: I'd just like to say a special thanks to everyone who helped me during this trying time.  I couldn't have achieved success without your undying support, relentless research, and valiant efforts to drown my sorrows in Chinese buffets and ice cream.  Thank you.

Please also note that the above links may have changed since I had to use them.  If this is the case, please let me know as I would like to keep the information in this post as up-to-date as possible.     


  1. If you "insert" your manuscript as a document into an email to a friend etc. can it be hacked
    from there? In other words is including it in an email the same as posting it on the Internet? (I may be the only one who doesn't know the answer to this, but I don't understand a lot about today's technology, and I don't always have a real understanding of its terms.)

    1. Unfortunately, emails can be hacked too, but I'm not sure how likely that is. Just to be safe (and since you have no control over what happens to your manuscript once your friends/family/critique buddies/etc. have it), you should split your manuscript into at least two files when you send it to other people. That way, your entire manuscript can't be stolen in one fell swoop.

      I do think it's okay to send the entire document to agents and editors, though, if they request your full manuscript. I would think they'd have very high security measures and will certainly treat your document with care. Hope that answers your question!

  2. Holy cow! I'm so sorry that happened to you but grateful for all your terrific advice and insight. I'm going to share this with my online critique group. We don't post whole manuscripts but some of us keep past files up. Thanks so much for the heads up.

    1. I'm so glad you found this information helpful! And yes, please feel free to share it with all your writing friends! The more writers who know how to protect themselves, the less manuscripts will be stolen. :)

      It's funny, but even some of our critiques to each other were stolen from our blog! (Who would want those?) Still, it's a good idea to take down any files you wouldn't want floating around the internet. I'm glad your online group has had good luck keeping your files safe!

  3. What great info. So it had to come at the expense of your sanity and as a violation of your hard word. I recently went through a small scale issue of theft. It sucks.

  4. Sorry to hear you had to deal with this too! It is an irritating and unpleasant situation. (Especially when we should be writing books, not angry letters!) Unfortunately, in this digital era, it seems like more writers are forced to deal with this sort of thing every day. I hope your situation worked out okay! :)