Ask Me Anything, Edition 4

What do you do about stolen content?

If you write a blog or post articles online, stolen content has become a part of life. There are scrappers who copy entire RSS feeds from blogs and repost the work as their own, while other content thieves just lift individual articles. It’s a particularly frustrating situation because it happens so often these days. The typical recommendation (assuming you don’t just ignore the situation and get on with your own work) is to file a takedown notice with the thief’s web host — in the notice, you can point to any material you hold the copyright on and ask the host to remove copies posted without your permission. The problem is that if a web host isn’t based in the US, it may entirely ignore your request.

I take a very different approach: I tell Google AdSense about the problem. Many of these content thieves use AdSense to make money off of the articles they’ve taken. But AdSense won’t run ads next content that violates copyright laws. You can file a notice with Google AdSense, which will lead to a site in violation of copyright laws to lose money — even lose their AdSense account entirely. You can report Blogger accounts, as well. WordPress also allows you to report blogs they host for DMCA violations.

Jennifer Halloran says,

Any tips you have for streamlining the estimating and billing processes would be greatly appreciated.

As far as estimating goes, I’ve made a point to make the process as simple as possible. I keep a fairly detailed list of the prices that I charge for certain types of projects, along with the amount of time it usually takes me to complete them. I talked a little about my services list at the beginning of the month, actually — Day 2: Consider Your Services. When I’m writing an estimate, I’ll just check that list and see what my numbers are. From there, I keep copies of all my old estimate emails in Gmail. I reuse paragraphs regularly, editing them to apply to the new project and letting me get an estimate out the door in minimal time.

My billing process is mostly QuickBooks with a few of my own quirks built in. I’m a big advocate of not re-inventing the wheel — Quickbooks tracks just about all the financial data my accountant could ever want, with fairly minimal effort on my part (and the cost of a copy of the software is a tax deduction). When you combine in a scanner capable of extracting information from receipts, like the NeatReceipts (also a tax deduction), 90 percent of my bookkeeping can be done while I watch Murder, She Wrote reruns. The actual invoicing is just a little bit more complicated: many of my clients have specific invoicing needs, like invoicing every two weeks or submitting invoices through an online form. I track my work each day so that I can just turn around and knock out invoices at the end of a billing period. I have notes about how each invoice has to be handled in QuickBooks in the notes’ section for each client’s file. I find that keeping all that information in one place makes the billing process significantly faster.

Emma Newman asks,

How about something about contracts? I have several clients but no written contracts – madness, but I don’t know where to start.

When it comes to getting a contract for a freelance writing project, I don’t worry as much as some other writers. I’ve found that enforcing contracts with clients based all over the world doesn’t really work particularly well — it’s not worth trying to start small claims proceedings in another country for a small amount of money.

That said, though, I think having a basic contract or letter of agreement can come in handy. Laying out all the specifics of a project upfront will eliminate miscommunication between a writer and a client. You can also protect yourself with a contract in ways that don’t involve going to court, like insisting that a client agree to a payment schedule that doesn’t leave you on the hook for a full project — something like half up front or a monthly payment schedule can really save your bacon.

You don’t need to go to a lawyer for each new project — it’s not exactly cost-effective. Instead, I keep a fairly general letter of agreement that I can fill in the details of a new agreement with a client as needed. I’m more concerned about clarity, over enforceability, but it is worth looking for a contract or letter of agreement that has held up in court to model your own on. If you have the opportunity (and cash) to have a lawyer create a fill-in-the-blanks contract for you, it’s worth it.

Since you’ve already got clients you’re working with, I’d suggest writing out your agreement with each and sending it out. Ask them to confirm, just to make sure that everyone’s on the same page. Once you’ve done that, you’ll have a document that you can just change the relevant details on — minimizing the paperwork in the future.

*Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, and not every situation is the same. If you are at all concerned about your contractual status, check it out with a lawyer. The information on this site is simply based on my own experiences as a freelance writer.

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