SIIA lawsuit places a PR practice on alert

WASHINGTON: News that the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA), whose members include the AP and UPI, brought copyright infringement claims against a company for disseminating press packets has called into concern a practice as old as the PR industry itself.

WASHINGTON: News that the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA), whose members include the AP and UPI, brought copyright infringement claims against a company for disseminating press packets has called into concern a practice as old as the PR industry itself.

Knowledge Networks (KN), a market research firm, had been internally distributing press packets that contained copyrighted materials from SIIA members, including the AP and UPI, according to an SIIA release. KN ultimately agreed to pay SIIA $300,000 for copyright infringement, the first case of content piracy for the SIIA, which is more known for pursing software piracy violations. KN declined to comment.

"If a company is routinely making copies of materials to which it doesn't have a license - it is unlikely that is fair use," said Scott Bain, a lawyer for SIIA.

"The safest thing is to make sure you have a license to do what you're doing."

Most newswires and magazine publishers provide blanket licenses, Bain said. The Copyright Clearance Center also offers licenses that vary in scope for some of its member publishers.

"We are going after the most egregious offenders," said Keith Kupferschmid, SVP of intellectual property policy and enforcement at SIIA. "We are very conservative in our approach."

Businesses engaged in systematic, continuous infringements would most likely be targeted, he added. The association also offers rewards to informants who report violations that range from $500 to $1 million for tips - depending on the amount of the settlement.

Distributing press packets to multiple stakeholders has been a common tactic in PR pros' arsenal. Whether to alert clients to the successes of a particular campaign or to promote camaraderie among internal audiences, the press packet has long been a way for PR pros to keep people in the loop. The extent to which this will affect the PR industry remains unclear, but industry sources acknowledged it would have an impact.

"This was a way information has been distributed as long as I've been in PR," said an industry source.

"People are taking a wait-and-see attitude," said another source. "It's one case settled. How that will affect policy - I don't know?"

"Our perspective is that a lot of PR firms and PR pros don't even realize they're distributing copyrighted materials illegally," said Don Marshall, a partner at Rational PR, which represents SIIA.

While distributing printed press packets without licensing would run afoul of the law, Bain said PR pros would be allowed to disseminate links because it doesn't cause the content provider to lose page views and ad revenues.

SIIA hopes the settlement will raise awareness and prompt companies to comply with the law, Bain said. Efforts include generating publicity on the case, developing informative videos, and offering compliance courses with License Logic in major cities.

"It is accurate to say that a large number of companies probably don't pay as much attention to this issue as they need to," he added. "We're hopeful this settlement and the program serve an educational purpose in that regard. Basically, the main point of doing these cases is to get the word out to try and bring companies into compliance."

Since the KN case was publicized, the association has reported a substantial increase in the number of reports it has received. But determining whether a violation has taken place is a process that involves many factors, Bain said.

One agency source criticized SIIA for not clearly instructing the industry how to be in compliance.

"What disturbs me most is that they seem to know this is going on and it looks like some sort of shake-down," the source added. "I just want to know what the answer is - what can we do?"

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