Copyright in the Workplace: Keeping Your Business Compliant and Competitive

How often do you e-mail an interesting article from a magazine or newspaper to your co-workers?  How often do you share content from a journal or research report with colleagues, customers or others inside or outside your organization?  If you’re like most business professionals, you do so frequently.  In today’s fast-paced, global environment, we rely on timely access to and sharing of information to innovate, collaborate and edge-out the competition.  But did you know by simply doing your job and trying to remain competitive, you may be putting your company at risk?  The fact is that if you are not getting the permission you need to distribute copyrighted information inside and outside of your company, you could be breaking the law.

Most of the content you use and share in the workplace is protected by copyright—newspapers, journal articles, newsletters, research reports, even blogs and other content found on the Internet.  U.S. copyright law applies not only to text works like those described above, but also to other original creative works such as photos and illustrations, charts and graphs, music and audiovisual works.  Its purpose is to foster creativity and spur the distribution of new and original works by giving publishers, writers and other creators the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute and publicly display their original works. Simply stated, this means that content users typically must get explicit permission from the copyright owner before they can lawfully copy, share or distribute a copyright-protected work, inside or outside an organization.

What is the Risk?

Copyright law allows copyright holders to sue infringers to cease the infringing activity and to collect money damages. For businesses, the cost of copyright infringement can come in many forms, including attorneys’ fees, potential loss of assets, negative publicity, and loss of public trust and goodwill. For companies such as Kinko’s and Texaco, which faced legal action against them, unlawful copying and distribution of copyrighted works cost them millions of dollars. (See side bar A)

Get Permission Before You Share

Most people would not put unlicensed software on their computer. Yet, many people don’t think twice before emailing or photocopying articles or newsletters. Almost any time that you share an article from a trade magazine, a conference presentation or any other copyright-protected work, your organization faces the challenge of ensuring copyright compliance. Though unintentional, in distributing these works you may in fact be violating copyright law.

Some content users assume that online content is not copyright-protected and therefore it may be freely used and modified without permission. This is not true.  Many people also believe that if a Web site does not contain a copyright notice the content contained on that site is not subject to copyright law and may be freely used and modified without permission. This is also not true.

Digital or electronic content, such as e-books, photographs on Web sites and electronic databases are subject to the same protections under the U.S. Copyright Act as non-digital, traditional or paper-based works. In addition, some specific provisions relating to digital content were established in the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

When considering copyright law and protection as they relate to content distribution, common assumptions are often incorrect. The fact is that almost all content in any print or digital form is protected by copyright, and generally you must obtain permission from the copyright holder to re-use it.

Examples of print and electronic distribution that typically require copyright permission include:

  • Sharing copies of a magazine article or analyst report with your colleagues.
  • Emailing a PDF of an article to co-workers or to customers.
  • Distributing competitive literature to your sales force.
  • Providing company-wide access to a single publication or newspaper subscription.
  • Posting articles to the corporate intranet or Wikis.
  • Inserting content into PowerPoint presentations.

All of the cases above would usually be considered infringement under copyright law unless you first obtained permission from the copyright holder.

Doing the Right Thing

Unless you and your colleagues understand when and how to obtain permission to share and distribute copyright-protected information, you cannot be sure that your organization is copyright compliant.  Consequently, education and awareness along with access to convenient means to obtain copyright permission are the best ways to ensure that your organization is doing the right thing with regard to copyright law. In addition, every organization should have a comprehensive policy for copyright compliance, which includes detailed procedures for obtaining copyright permission that are specific to its business and usage needs.

When employees need to get permission to use a certain work, there are two primary ways to get it—contact the copyright holder directly or utilize licensing services provided by an authorized agent of copyright holders such as Copyright Clearance Center (CCC).

Contacting each copyright holder directly for every copyright permission you need can be a lengthy and time-consuming process. For most print and online publications, the publisher is most often the copyright holder. If you cannot identify the copyright holder for the material you want to use, you may have to request a search by the U.S. Copyright Office. The Copyright Office can search only those works that have been registered. However, registration is not a requirement for copyright protection. When requesting copyright permission it is important to note that a lack of response from the copyright holder does not, under U.S. law, convey permission. In addition, some works may contain materials—text, images and graphics—from multiple copyright holders and may require separate authorization from each one.

Alternatively, Copyright Clearance Center provides streamlined and efficient ways to obtain copyright permission.  CCC was formed as a not-for-profit organization over 30 years ago to make it easy for businesses and other organizations to get the permission they need to collaborate and share valuable information, while reducing the risk of copyright infringement.  More than 20 million corporate workers use CCC’s annual subscription licenses to share content across their companies around the world.  In fact, 400 of the Fortune 500 use CCC’s licensing solutions to accelerate the free flow of information that drives innovation and productivity.

In addition, CCC provides extensive educational programs and free resources to promote copyright awareness and provide employees with the tools they need to comply with copyright law.  You can visit the company’s web site at copyright.com for a host of free educational resources including the Guide to Copyright Compliance for business professionals, a video on Copyright in the Work Place, a new Copyright Basics Video and guidelines for developing a corporate compliance policy.

Complying with Copyright Has Benefits

By complying with copyright law, everyone wins. Copyright holders who create the content receive fair compensation and control over their work. Organizations benefit, gaining access to the valuable information they need to be competitive, while demonstrating lawful, ethical business practices.

To learn more about Copyright Clearance Center’s compliance solutions, please contact a Copyright Clearance Center Licensing Consultant at 978-750-8400.

Craig Sender is Senior Manager, Public Relations at the Copyright Clearance Center.
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