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Web 'copycats' ripping off small businesses

UK company first, followed by US company...
Written by Will Sturgeon, Contributor

UK company first, followed by US company...

A serial website thief is ripping off content and other intellectual property wholesale - much to the annoyance of the companies and individuals whose businesses depend on the sites affected.

To date, silicon.com is aware of two companies that have suffered similar fates but the pattern and the ease with which these criminals can move on has raised concerns that many more companies could have fallen victim to this ploy - and that many others may do so in the future.

silicon.com was contacted by Shane O'Donoghue, who has been running a website called Car Enthusiast - dedicated to all things automotive - since 1999. It gets about four million impressions per month and O'Donoghue sells advertising on the site in order to pay the bills.

However, he recently noticed another site, called 'Car or Car', that had cropped up in the previous month or so and was ripping off his site design, content and even his copyright notice. It was then using his hard work to sell advertising of its own. The complete 'cut and paste' nature of the theft meant that O'Donoghue was even listed as Car or Car's editor - next to a picture of himself.

Understandably O'Donoghue was upset and tried to get in touch with the site's owners.

"We emailed them via the contact page, which was the same as our own, and heard nothing back," he said. "We then contacted the authority that controls the domain and heard nothing."

Part of the problem was that the site was being hosted outside EU jurisdiction, in Taiwan. This isn't altogether surprising - such a choice of location suggests that the site's owners were attempting to safeguard themselves from legal action.

While China, Taiwan and the Far East in general are not the lawless internet havens they once represented for the likes of spammers and fraudsters, they still present barriers when seeking legal recourse.

O'Donoghue said: "We're not a big company and we don't have the lawyers or the money to pursue legal action."

However, a twist in the tale came when silicon.com contacted Car or Car and informed them that their illegal business model had been rumbled. Although we received no reply the site vanished overnight, to reappear the next day in a new guise - this time a complete mirror image of another car enthusiast site - and this time one being run out of Rochester, New York, in the US.

Until its owners move on to their next victim, compare the genuine Sports Car Club of America website with the not-so-genuine Car or Car site. The only difference is the banner ad at the top left for a company called refinance-now.org, registered in Pennsylvania by an organisation called Webclients.

At the time of writing, Webclients had failed to respond to an email requesting it clarify its relationship with carorcar.com - which it may be sponsoring unaware of any crime being committed.

Michael Cover, a partner and intellectual property expert at law firm Faegre Benson Hobson Audley who also sits on WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) dispute panels, told silicon.com: "If you have this kind of problem in the UK, it is reasonably easy to resolve. But this can sometimes present very difficult problems, especially where a site is registered outside the EU."

But companies that think distance and national borders protect them may be disappointed to hear China is becoming increasingly open and Cover said: "Taiwan is a very developed jurisdiction and there should be no problems now pursuing cases such as this."

The copycat site certainly appears to be in breach of "copyright - such as design and literary content", he added and rectifying the situation may not be as problematic as first feared.

Lawyers agree that in the first instance the aggrieved companies should try "putting the frighteners" on the individuals behind these crimes, who doubtless know they are in breach of the law and may therefore give in at the first sign of trouble.

At the time of writing, Shane O'Donohue is considering his options. The people behind the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) have been informed by silicon.com of the breach of their copyright and the hosts and administrators of Car or Car, based in Taiwan and Australia respectively, have been informed of the part they are playing in enabling this crime.

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