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Copyright infringement: Beliefs and fallacies

Opportunities for copyright infringement are greater than ever. With a couple of keystrokes, digital information can be copied and pasted anywhere. With a few more, it’s easily pushed out to a multitude via email or social media. And then there is the “save as” option in browsers, word processors and other applications that makes it more than easy to save copyrighted works to desktops, network drives and other types of storage devices.

The prevailing attitudes about copyright infringement seem to be:

  • Copyright is a non-issue.
  • No one is paying attention.
  • Penalties are unlikely or inconsequential.

This laissez-faire attitude toward copyright infringement is not only illegal, but unethical and indefensible. Let’s examine each of these beliefs in turn and consider how employers like law firms and major corporations have the responsibility to change this casual view of copyright protection.

1. How can copyright infringement be an issue when everyone is doing it?

It turns out that many people either don’t understand copyright protection or don’t believe that copyright infringement applies to them. Surveys conducted by Outsell, a research firm focused on media and technology, show that people in business and law can be the worst offenders.  Results of one such survey reported by Copyright Clearance Center (CCC ) found that:

  • 48% of executives believe it’s acceptable to share information as long as it’s not used for commercial purposes;
  • 45% believe digital or print paid information is fine to share;
  • Legal workers forward information to the greatest number of people (13 or more) and do so the most frequently (11.5 times per week).

The irony is that if the tables were turned and the copyrights of these individuals and organizations were being violated, they would be offended and probably seeking remedies for infringements of their own copyrights.

A version of the golden rule needs to guide our actions when it comes to copyright protection – we should treat the copyrights of others as we would like them to treat our own copyrights.

As for people who might say, “I don’t care, I give permission for anyone to share my work,” – they need to understand that this view does not apply to the works that actually belong to their employer. Nor do they have the right to extend their view to other copyright holders. That’s the point of copyright – each of us has the right to determine how we want our work to be used, as well as a right to attribution and compensation.

2. The risks for infringing upon copyright protection are low.

The volume of digital information being produced and shared means that the risks of being discovered for copyright infringement have been relatively low, it’s true, yet those odds are changing. With growing awareness, technology advances, new laws, the ease of finding duplicated content on the internet and rights holders becoming savvier, chances are also greater that violations will be uncovered.

Technology enables copying, copy & paste, saving and sharing, yet it also enables tracking and monitoring for detection. Email and social media trails lead directly to copyright offenders and these trails can remain within organizational networks and the cloud essentially forever.

Technologies like DRM (Digital Restrictions Management) control access by placing restrictions on what users can do with digital media such as music, images, videos, books and journals. On the legal front, legislation like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) was passed in the United States in 1998 to criminalize any technology or activity intended to circumvent DRM measures and to increase penalties for copyright infringement on the Internet.

Other Copyright Infringement Risk Factors:

  • Copyright infringement can happen even when the person doesn’t know it’s illegal or doesn’t have the intention of violating someone else’s copyright protection.
  • Businesses are at risk of copyright infringement for content that is copied and transmitted on their behalf. While the doctrine of Fair Use exists, it does not apply to commercial entities and the concept of vicarious liability means someone (including those commercial entities) can be held responsible for the actions or omissions of others (like their employees).
  • A for-profit company’s responsibilities toward copyright doesn’t stop at the border. While the information in this article is based on U.S. copyright laws, other countries have different and often conflicting laws. Multinational businesses need to consider copyright laws in all the countries in which they are located or conduct business.

The bottom line: Copyright ignorance may be bliss, but it’s not legally defensible

3. The penalties for copyright infringement are not that burdensome.

While penalties vary, they are real and they can deliver grave consequences to individuals and organizations alike. The best case scenario is that the copyright holder requests that you stop the wrongdoing and remove all instances of the information used without permission. The worst case scenario could involve hefty fines and criminal charges.

Penalties for copyright infringement may include:

  • Injunctions
  • Destruction of infringing materials
  • Payment of damages and lost profits to the copyright holder
  • Legal expenses such as court costs and attorney fees
  • Criminal charges

Many organizations, especially large enterprises, underestimate the risk of penalty. Large corporations may feel they are shielded because of their deep pockets and access to legal resources. However, one notable David vs. Goliath type of case that shows the fallacy of this thinking involved Lowry Research, a privately-held firm with fewer than 50 employees, suing Legg Mason, a $2.1 billion, publicly-held global asset management firm.

Lowry pursued legal action against Legg Mason for copyright infringement involving illegal distribution of its financial newsletters. Legg Mason chose to litigate and lost, with the jury awarding nearly $20 million dollars to Lowry. (The case ultimately settled for an undisclosed sum.)

We are all individually responsible for respecting the copyrights of others and following the laws that protect intellectual and creative property. For-profit businesses have a broader obligation and duty to educate their employees about copyright protections and the consequences of infringement.

I will continue with this topic when I cover how to create and implement policies that will educate and guide employees and other stakeholders regarding digital rights clearance and how to prevent copyright violations.

Click here to read post about Copyright Policies and Employee Education.

Meanwhile, I invite you to learn more about LAC Group services for Rights Clearance or contact us directly with any questions or requests for more information.

Additional Copyright Infringement Articles and Resources

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