Understanding Copyright Risks

By O'Brien, Pamela R. | Security Management, April 1999 | Go to article overview

Understanding Copyright Risks


O'Brien, Pamela R., Security Management


Something as well-intentioned as a tailor-made training video could land your company in court if copyright infringement issues are overlooked.

The new technologies of the digital revolution such as low-cost, photographic-quality graphics software, digital cameras, scanners, and the Internet allow users to transfer information, in a multitude of formats, with unparalleled speed and ease. Such technology is creating a nightmare for companies and individuals trying to enforce copyrights. The digital world is also opening up new realms of liability for companies whose employees use someone else's copyrighted images, words, or sounds without realizing that they are infringing on another's rights. Because both sides of the infringement issue can directly affect a company's bottom line - either through loss of royalties or legal liability risk managers must focus on these new technologies with an eye toward how infringement occurs and how to stop it.

Not all copying is copyright infringement, and it may be difficult for a layperson to tell the difference between infringement and legal use. The following hypothetical case illustrates how copyright laws might come into play in day-to-day business activities. (Merry Hill Hotels is a fictitious company.)

Merry Hill hotels, an international hotel chain with several thousand employees, had been receiving complaints from guests about poor attitudes among the service staff. The company's executives decided that the problem should be addressed in a seminar at its annual conference for hotel managers. They hired a communications professor from a local university to run the seminar.

The professor created a thirty-minute presentation to be shown at the seminar and subsequently at each hotel. Most of the visuals simply highlighted major points using text, but the professor also incorporated some still photographic images, a video clip, and a narrative soundtrack. The multimedia presentation was then played from a laptop computer connected to a large-screen projector.

The presentation was shown at the annual conference and was a huge hit. Merry Hill's managers were inspired and took the lessons learned back to their individual hotels. Customer service improved and guests stopped complaining. Merry Hill was so pleased with the presentation that it started showing it at training seminars for new staff, executive conferences, and board meetings.

The company's legal counsel was not so enthusiastic. He worried that some of the still photographic images and the video clip could present copyright problems and expose Merry Hill to liability. The attorney began researching these components of the presentation and compiling the following report of his findings.

CLIP-ART. Most of the still photographic images were taken from a clip-art CD-ROM that the professor bought at a local computer store. The program came with a license allowing the purchaser to use the clip-art. The license did not specifically exclude commercial uses.

Because of the license, the in-house counsel determines that the professor's use of the clip-art images has not infringed on the manufacturer's rights. He notes in his report, however, that the issue would be clearer if the license spoke specifically about personal and commercial uses. There is some risk that a court might find commercial use of the clip-art beyond the scope of the license.

The attorney contacts the manufacturer directly to discuss the issue and finds that this risk is mitigated by the software company's admission that it does not monitor the use of its clip-art images. The manufacturer states that as long as the images do not appear in the public domain, the company has not been pursuing potential infringement claims. based on this information, the attorney notes in his report that Merry Hill executives should be careful that none of the clip-art is used in national advertising campaigns. …

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