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6 Tips for protecting the intellectual property of your online courses

We live in a time when it’s easy to share pretty much everything we want, from pictures in our PJs drinking coffee to our deepest thoughts. For instructional designers, the possibility of making their courses available to large audiences in various geographical locations is also great and makes for great business. Yet, with all this sharing comes the issue of protecting your intellectual property.

I don't have any legal training, so if you are in a situation that requires that sort of intervention, you should consult a professional. If, however, you are simply worried about your content being “borrowed”, here are a few ideas about protecting it and ensuring that you’ll have the proof to defend your rights if it ever comes to that.

1. Publicly own your content

One of the easiest ways to show that a piece of content was designed by you is to deliver it in person. Especially with the growing appetite for all things video (just look at TikTok stats for reference), it’s a good idea to associate your face with the content from the very start. Of course, people will still be able to use a dictation app and reuse it, but whoever will ever search for it will end up with your image as the expert. And if people simply use your video, you’ll get more visibility and a larger audience.

Read more: Great tips on how to get your video content shared

2. Use time stamps

In an intellectual property dispute, the date and time when something (a course, a blog article, an infographic, a study) becomes available on the internet are important. Making sure all your content is properly time-stamped is a no-brainer to figure out “who wrote/said/filmed it first”. As such, make sure you add the correct date and time so nobody can question these details. Adding the location might also help, so consider that as well.

3. Watermark your content

This is an easy way to ensure everyone knows who produced and posted the blog posts, infographics, videos or any other type of content. If your name, site, logo or any other identifiable item appears on all of your materials, they will be a lot harder to misuse. Even if that does happen, you’ll still get some credit for it as people will see that you’re the original content creator. It’s not ideal, but at least there is a silver lining and a better chance you’ll find out if something like this happens.

4. Make (and publish) your own copyright policy

Your content, your rules. Nothing is holding you back from creating your own policies to help guide and educate your audience about what is OK and what isn’t when it comes to sharing or re-using your work. Simply write a concise list of what you consider all right when it comes to referencing your content, using parts of it, or reproducing it in various contexts. Also, offer a way for people to contact you if they have any questions or requests.

Read more: What you need to know about copyright for online courses

5. Be vigilant (without overdoing it)

You can’t possibly spend all your time monitoring the Internet to catch anybody out to use your content without permission. What you can do is set up Google Alerts that will let you know when your name or parts of your work show up online. The service is free and easy to set up and you will receive an email anytime your keywords appear somewhere. That way, you can check if it was just a coincidence or somebody is actually stealing your work.

6. Get a trademark

I’ve left this option last because it’s only applicable if you have something that is of great (monetary) value and therefore a good reason to spend on this option. Trademarking is not cheap, and you will need the help of an attorney. Usually, this is advisable when your content is innovative or contains some research or discovery that you want to keep “yours” for longer and monetize it later.

Closing thoughts

Protecting your intellectual property is not easy in today’s online environment. To some extent, the fact that people are using your work is good for business as long as you’re always mentioned. The tips I’ve listed here are not bulletproof (let’s face it, even major film studios can’t fully protect their property) but they will help you get credit for what you create.

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