Should you copyright your course?

Imagine you’ve invested a lot of time and money in creating your course, only to find some stranger online selling your course as their own?

Something similar happened to a friend of mine recently – the person had bought her offer, duplicated it, and was selling it as her own. The audacity! The copycat hadn’t modified it much and her website was even word for word the same. She even went so far as to copy my friend’s logo.

Now, this isn’t an isolated incident, one of my mentors says that it’s pretty much a rite of passage for course creators, but I know I’d be hurt and angry if this happened to me.

So, let’s talk about some practical things you can do to protect your intellectual property.

But first time for the legalese – what is copyright?

Copyright is a form of protection provided to authors of “original works of authorship”. This term encompasses both published and unpublished works, but only applies to human beings (not corporations or companies). There are two requirements for copyright:

  • Originality: a work must be created independently by the author; it cannot be copied from another source.
  • Fixation: the work must be fixed in a tangible medium such as paper, video or computer code. This means that an idea alone does not get copyright protection — rather, it protects the expression of ideas in some tangible form (e.g., writing down your thoughts about an idea or capturing them on video). In addition, since copyright protects expression and not ideas themselves, you can use an idea without getting permission from the original owner if you express it in a new way.

How to copyright your online course

There are a few different ways that you can go about copyrighting your online course.

  • The first way is to register it with the U.S. Copyright Office. You can do this by filling out a form and sending it in along with a copy of your course material.
  • Another way to copyright your online course is to include a copyright notice on each page of your course. This notice should include your name, the date, and the phrase “All Rights Reserved.”
  • You can also put your course material under a Creative Commons license. This will allow others to use and share your material as long as they give you credit.
  • Finally, you can speak to a lawyer about writing some solid terms & conditions.

What content can be copyrighted?

Content that can be copyrighted in an online course includes things like:

  • The actual course material itself
  • Any accompanying written materials
  • Audio or video recordings of the lectures
  • Images or other visuals used in the course

What can’t be copyrighted?

It’s important to understand that not everything can be copyrighted. For example, ideas and facts cannot be copyrighted, but the way those ideas are expressed can be.

For example, if your course is about how to improve your financial situation by cutting back on unnecessary spending, copyright law won’t protect that basic concept being expressed in your course (the general idea). However, it will protect how you express that concept through the text, video content or audio recordings in your course (the expression), such as:

  • How you tell your personal story within the course;
  • The graphics you created for your slides;
  • The design and colour scheme of your site; and even
  • Your unique voiceover recording for the video lessons.

So now we know the legal stuff – here are some practical ideas you can implement:

How to find a copycat:

  • Set up some Google Alerts to trigger whenever your course name or key phrases are used online.
  • Use a plagiarism tool to check if anyone has plagiarised any of your copy (ie.a tool like

What to do if you find a copycat:

  • Decide whether to go hard or easy on them – sometimes all it takes is for you to reach out and say “I see you” for them to take it down.
  • Take screenshots of both items (yours and theirs) and make sure you include the URLs in the screenshots. The Internet Archive Wayback Machine has an option to save a page – so you can Capture a web page as it appears now for use as a trusted citation in the future.”
  • Get a lawyer to write up a cease-and-desist letter that you can reuse as necessary. This will let them know that you know what they’ve done and that you’re serious about taking them on.

And if all else fails you can try this fabulous tip from a recent post by Denise Duffield Thomas – report them for intellectual property theft with their hosting provider, course platform or payment provider. That should do it!