In August, Knowledge Networks, a research company in California, agreed to settle a $300,000 lawsuit for something that may sound familiar - copying press clips and distributing them internally and to its clients.
Don't worry, the copyright police aren't going to raid your office looking for that Wall Street Journal story you photocopied last year. But this case should send a clear message that copying and distributing material without proper licenses is illegal and being pursued.
Since the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) announced the settlement with Knowledge Networks, we have heard from many PR pros wanting to know more about our content anti-piracy program. Distributing information such as press clips is a traditional part of PR, but we want everyone to understand how they can operate in a manner that respects copyrights.
A recent PRWeek editorial noted that most firms are willing to comply if they have clear guidelines. We agree. Those breaking the law likely aren't doing it with malicious intent. For this reason, our ultimate goal is to inform and educate.
For years, SIIA has offered materials and videos on copyright compliance. We also sponsor live courses, taught around the US, in which companies learn about copyright law and how it pertains to licensing, disseminating, and use of publications. The course, "Certified Content Rights Manager," demonstrates that it is relatively easy and inexpensive to procure licenses from publishers or their agents, such as the Copyright Clearance Center or iCopyright. The SIIA Web site - www.siia.net - offers further resources and information about our courses.
But, of course, education alone won't protect publishers whose copyrights are violated. For this reason, SIIA will pursue groups that are making copies and distributing content internally or externally without the proper licenses.
Reports sometimes come from people within a company, or from former employees, who provide detailed information about their organization's practices. To ensure that we get reliable information, we offer rewards of as much as $1 million and do not reveal the identities of those who submit the reports.
The entities that become targets usually are engaged in systematic, business-related copying and distribution that is not remotely close to being a "fair use." They cannot claim their infringement was innocent or non-willful - much of the content bears clear notices of copyright. And while even occasional, small-scale copying without the proper license can constitute infringement, we typically pursue organizations engaged in continuous widespread copying and distribution or those that do so less frequently, but on a large scale. In essence, we pursue the most egregious offenders.
Some people may believe that just about every PR department or firm would fall within our definition of "egregious offender."
We hope this is not the case - but we also believe that just because companies may have been engaging in these practices for years, that doesn't mean it's OK to turn a blind eye. Copying and mass distribution of copyrighted articles is a serious offense - it is stealing just as much as using unlicensed software is stealing.
The bottom line is that staying in compliance with copyright laws is not difficult or expensive. Businesses have a fairly easy choice to make - they can devote the attention and relatively modest resources necessary to ensure they are compliant, or they can become the next Knowledge Networks.
Keith Kupferschmid is SVP of intellectual property policy and enforcement at the Software & Information Industry Association.