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How to Protect your Digital Downloads From Theft

Selling digital download products is a perfect fit for creative business owners. Instant access for our customers, no trips to the post office, and no ceiling on how many we can sell—what’s not to love? The only thorn in an otherwise flawless business model is the threat of file theft.

Computer, coffee, and hands. Text stating
What steps can you take to protect yourself?

As a graphic designer who sells digital downloads, my ears perk up whenever I hear the latest tale of how “this person from <country I’ve never heard of> stole my design and is selling it in a Zazzle shop for less money.” It’s scary to think that you could be the next victim.

Digital download theft is not entirely avoidable, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t put up a good fight. By taking a few small steps, you’ll reduce the likelihood of theft. Rest easy that you did everything you could to protect yourself.

In this article, I break down all of the ways I secure the stuff I sell and give away for free online. This article includes how I educate my audience about usage. I also share how I quiet my fears and keep a big-picture mentality when it comes to digital download theft. It helps that I use HoneyBook, a platform that allows me to sell digital products securely online. Still, you can never be too careful!

When and where should you be using file protection?

It’s important to safeguard your work, but even more so when you put anything out there for free. Many of us use freebies in our marketing to attract new users and to give our audience a taste of what we have to offer. Not every visitor will turn into a buyer, but you don’t want them stealing your work, either.

You can feel more secure about the items that you sell. When a customer spends money to purchase one of your digital products, it’s unlikely that they are doing it to steal from you. HoneyBook is a great way to sell your digital products securely, with features like email time-out that eliminate opportunities for exploitation. In addition to requiring payment for your files, an email opt-in form is your first layer of defense. You’ll collect information like the customer’s name, address and phone number.

In addition to giving you a way to stay in touch with your audience, requiring an email address removes anonymity. Of course, anyone could type in a fake name and email address, but authentication emails will stop many from doing that. The more details you request, the more of a deterrent it will be to a thief.

How to protect your digital downloads

While it’s impossible to prevent file theft entirely, there are more measures you can take to protect your work to make it harder to do so. When it comes to digital downloads, password protection is your best friend.

If you are selling PDFs that you don’t want to be altered or modified for resale, you can protect your files with a password using Adobe Acrobat. For any free resources you share (such as a printable design or guide), it’s smart to add password protection to prevent users from doing anything other than viewing and printing. With this layer of protection, the user will be prompted to input a password if they try to open it in an editing program like Adobe Photoshop. Unfortunately, .jpegs are not easily protected in the same way, so use PDFs when possible.

Educating your audience and customers

Be very explicit about usage in your blog posts and on sales pages. When you provide clear instructions and terms of use, you show that you mean business. Use language to give anyone with bad intentions very little defense. If there’s nothing that says, “you can’t use this commercially,” what’s to stop them?

In addition to including text on your websites, it’s also good practice to incorporate them into your files themselves. Add a copyright line to the bottom of any PDF you share. Here’s what I use for my digital downloads:

© Elegance & Enchantment and Enchanted Prints. For personal use only, not to be copied, distributed, altered or sold. //

If the nature of your digital product doesn’t allow for space, consider adding a separate “Read Me” file with all instructions and terms and include it with your download.

Pro Tip: Zip your product files and “read me” files together into one folder for a more streamlined downloading process.

Label your files with your business name

It’s also good practice to label your files with your business name. For example, instead of calling your download: “Save the Date Template.jpg” you can consider, “Save the Date Template ©Rebecca Jayne Photography.jpg”. Including a copyright symbol next to your name is just another reminder that the content belongs to you.

While it won’t protect you legally, it never hurts to include a couple of lines of text to remind your readers and users that this is your livelihood and that you’re a real person who has worked hard to craft your digital resource. Here’s an example of what I include at the bottom of my Etsy listings:

Lots of hard work and love goes into designing every item—thank you for respecting these terms.

If file theft is a big concern or has been a problem for you in the past, you may want to consider hiring an attorney to craft the perfect verbiage and seek counsel if/when a robbery occurs.

Learning when to let it go

In our online digital space, we have to accept that theft is going to happen from time to time. Living in constant fear that somebody is going to steal our ideas, designs or work will prevent us from using our creative talents to keep producing—which is just another type of robbery.

When you discover that file theft has occurred, consider the severity of the situation. If someone reposted one of your Instagram photos without permission, is it really worth your time to track that person down, and start a full-fledged campaign against them?

It’s not the end of the world

We all know that running a successful business is not just about creating something and putting it up for sale. Just because somebody steals one of your files, it doesn’t mean that they are smart enough to be able to market it or even sell it. Keep this in mind, if you happen to stumble across one of your printable designs in a shop that has been open for two years and had three sales.

Pick your battles, and only take action when you see that your business is going to suffer if you don’t. For example: if you notice that a big-name website or store is using your exact design and claiming it as their own, that’s not okay! If you find yourself in a situation where you need to take action, seek legal counsel before making contact, or you could end up hurting your case.

If you sell digital downloads or use them as opt-ins to grow your audience, your hard work deserves to be respected. A little time and effort toward preventative measures will take you far and put you at ease. Create security so you can focus on creating more incredible work to share with the world.

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