There are so many reasons why selling digital products is a perfect fit for creative business owners. Instant access for our customers, no trips to the post office for us, 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. There always has to be something, right?
As a graphic designer who sells digital downloads, my ears perk up whenever I hear the latest tale of how “this girl from <country I’ve never heard of> stole my design and is selling it in her Zazzle shop for less money.” It’s scary to think that you could be the next victim.
Digital file theft is not entirely avoidable, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t put up a good fight. In taking a few, small actions, you’ll reduce the number of bad guys (okay, let’s be honest, it’s usually a girl) from stealing your stuff, and be able to rest easy that you did everything you could to protect yourself.
In this article, I break down the all of the ways I secure the stuff I sell and give away for free online, including 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 theft.
When and where should you be using file protection?
It’s always 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 before asking them to buy. It’s a reality that not every visitor will turn into a buyer, but you certainly don’t want them to become a seller (of your work) either.
An email opt-in form is your first layer of defense. In addition to giving you a way to stay in touch with your audience, the requirement of entering an email address before receiving their download removes anonymity. Of course, anyone could type in a fake name and email address, but most thieves won’t want to bother with that extra step.
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. In addition to requiring payment for your files, you’ll likely collect information like the customer’s name, address, and phone number, which reminds the purchaser that you know who they are. The more details you request, the more of a deterrent it will be to a thief.
How to protect your digital product files
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 products, 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 able to be protected in the same way, so use PDFs when at all possible.
Educating your audience and customers
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 on my digital downloads:
© Elegance & Enchantment and Enchanted Prints. For personal use only, not to be copied, distributed, altered or sold.
www.eleganceandenchantment.com // www.enchantedprints.com
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.
Tip: zip your product files and “read me” file together into one folder for a more streamlined downloading process.
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. If we live in constant fear that somebody is going to steal our ideas, or designs, or work, then it will prevent us from using our creative talents to keep producing—which is just another type of robbery.
If and 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?
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 products or use them as opt-ins to grow your audience, your hard work deserves to be respected. A little amount of time and effort to put preventative measures into place will take you far, and most importantly, put you at ease, so you can focus on creating more incredible work to share with the world.