Copyright Clearance CenterAdapted with permission from an article by A. Miles McNamee that originally appeared in “New Perspectives on Healthcare Risk Management, Control and Governance Magazine.” 

With its ability to whisk information through cyberspace at the click of a key, the Internet, like copyright, is at the heart of new thoughts and ideas. In many ways, it’s the perfect union, pairing fresh creativity with an engine for global transmission. The result is that access to vast stores of information has become equal opportunity: Everyone has access. No longer reliant on corporate librarians to secure information, employees are sharing data whenever and wherever they want. However, any time employees share content, there are risks—substantial legal and financial exposure.  Let me explain.

Copyright creates a form of ownership for any original work written, recorded, or captured in some fashion, including art, music, and literature, to be sure, but also research, news, blogs, and e-books. The U.S. Copyright Office handles the registration of 550,000 copyright claims annually and this is only a small portion of the works that copyright protects. The law protects these rights through copyright infringement lawsuits.

Even if they don’t create any new works or ideas of their own, systematically disregarding copyright requirements contradicts the values that are integral to most corporate missions. Observes Chris Gannon, vice president and general counsel for Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Vermont, “You can’t say that integrity is a core value and then be a scofflaw on copyright infringement.”

Information sharing concerns

How do corporate employees put information into motion? E-mail is the primary vehicle. A whopping 80 percent of employees use it to send links to content or to attach documents, according to an extensive report published in February 2010 by Outsell Inc., a Burlingame, CA research firm. Nearly half (48%) of knowledge workers surveyed cut-and-paste content directly into e-mails. As Outsell points out in the 28-page report highlighting its findings, sending a link is often in compliance with the obligations created by copyright law, while attaching documents or cutting and pasting often is not — but the distinction is often lost.

Outsell finds other distinctions are lost, too. One is the difference between free information and freely shareable information. Fifty-one percent of respondents agree that information they obtain online or in print at no charge can be shared without permission. In most cases, it can’t. When content is paid for, restrictions are more obvious to respondents: 44% agree it is not permissible to share information they pay for. But 24% believe it is. It usually isn’t.

Copyright requirements do register on a surprising number of workers’ radar, Outsell reports. Forty-seven percent think about copyright before forwarding information. More troubling is Outsell’s finding that 31% are ambivalent about it, and 23% don’t think about it at all.

That may be why information managers say copyright is more important than it was a year ago, according to a survey by U.K. publisher FreePint.  No doubt one factor boosting awareness is the spate of copyright-related news stories, such as the infringement lawsuit against Google Book Search.

“Prominent copyright news stories raise the issue to the forefront and cause some people to change their actions,” agrees R. David Donoghue, an intellectual property litigator for Holland & Knight and author of the Chicago IP Litigation Blog. “But the bigger copyright issue is the incidental or unintentional infringement, such as an engineer who needs a few chapters from a textbook. That kind of copying is so prevalent that companies can’t rely on cautionary news reports to inform employees, says Donoghue. Responsibility for educating them, he adds, rests with employers and their employees.

One obstacle is that fewer than half of knowledge workers believe copyright permission is easy to obtain in their organizations, according to Outsell. Their impressions are largely accurate: the outreach and phone calls required to garner permission can absorb hours of work over the course of several days. Ned May, author of Outsell’s report, isn’t surprised. “It speaks to the breadth of items on any knowledge worker’s mind today,” says May, director and lead analyst. “We’re all doing more with less, and we’re moving faster.”

Confusion & lack of education

May points out that publishers convey mixed messages to website visitors by routinely accompanying articles with multiple sharing options, such as allowing readers to e-mail links and to post article-related comments on Facebook and social news websites like Digg and Mixx. “Certainly it seems fine to share if everyone is enabling it,” says May. His advice? Education is critical.

Outsell found that while most employees know their companies have copyright policies, they don’t know how they work. More than three-quarters (79%) think their organizations have such policies. But the fact that 44% say they don’t know the policies’ details underscores the need for companies to provide mechanisms that facilitate compliance.

Electronic technology makes it easy to obtain information and to share it. In today’s “do more with less” corporate climate, we often fail to consider whether the information we share is proprietary. When we do that we are placing our company at risk. The best solution is to educate employees on copyright law, put internal controls into place, and consider purchasing a license that allows for enhanced capabilities to share copyrighted content from millions of information sources without the cumbersome need to obtain individual permissions for content users.

With a company-wide license, employees can:

• E-mail online articles to fellow employees and coworkers

• Distribute copies of published articles at internal meetings

• Post excerpts of industry research on corporate intranet sites

• Print and copy published articles to share with company colleagues

• Download content for use at company meetings

• Include published material with regulatory submissions to government agencies

For a quick, fun video about copyright and corporate compliance, check out Copyright @ Work.

A.Miles McNamee is Vice President, Licensing and Business Development at Copyright Clearance Center (one of Wolper’s strategic partners), where he oversees business development efforts and licensing of all CCC products and services