Smart Not Sorry: Does Your Company Have a Copyright Compliance Policy?

Your employees forward funny cat pictures to you that they find on the web. You scrape some interesting photo from Google images to use in a presentation. Your last company meeting opened up with a popular song heard on the radio, and you ended up showing a clip from the latest Hollywood blockbuster to motivate your employees. What’s wrong with all of this? Well, you may have been violating copyright laws. Does your company have a copyright policy in place? Or, is it waiting to be sued and put out of business?

Ask For Professional Input

Before you make any kind of firm guideline in-house, hire a lawyer who specializes in copyright law. This is absolutely essential, not only for your company but for you as well. You don’t want to find yourself on the wrong side of a lawsuit.

A legal, or compliance, department may have to be formed to protect your company from copyright-related lawsuits.

Create a Policy Objective

Creating a policy objective means being clear about why your organization is implementing firm rules concerning copyright protection. For example, is your purpose in creating copyright guidelines to fulfill some obligation you have under copyright laws? Or, is it to inform employees of your zero-tolerance for copyright infringement in the workplace.

Whatever your purpose is, make it explicit. That way, there’s no confusion about it when it comes time to communicate it to everyone in the company.

Define Copyright

What does “copyright” mean to you? What will it mean for your company? In most cases, and certainly in the U.S., you cannot have a copyright policy that affords less protection that the government’s own copyright laws. However, you can harden copyright laws by being more restrictive about what you will and will not allow in your business.

This might mean disallowing even public domain works or works that are protected under the Creative Commons, without prior approval from management. Some companies do this to prevent sharing of non-work-related materials too.

Setting Company Wide Guidelines and Policies

For example, a company might restrict the use of file sharing software, not because employees may do something illegal with it, but because there’s a risk that employees may use it for personal file sharing. On the other hand, a company may explicitly promote the use of “best practices” when it comes to downloading. When formulating policy, they may use websites like to educate their employees on safe downloading practices that keep the company and employees on the right side of the law. Companies can no longer afford to keep their head in the sand when it comes to staying on top of internet use and must assume a certain amount of personal use is being made use of by employees.

Provide Guidelines For Using Copyright-Protected Stuff

How will your company manage copyright-protected material? International treaties, like the Berne Convention, WIPO, and TRIPS mandate certain guidelines, but you can also harden these rules by specifying more strict internal regulations. A zero-tolerance policy will ensure compliance by making it clear that termination is a punishment for failing to follow the guidelines.

Create Procedures For Copyright Infringement

Not all guidelines have to be punishment or negative-based. There are certainly instances where guidelines may allow the use of copyright-protected material as long as proper permission from the copyright holder or owner is obtained first, or it is clear that the copyright holder has authorized free sharing. These requests would be run through your company’s legal department, a copy of the written permission would be filed for as long as the copyrighted material was in use, and extensive documentation would tie the use of that copyright-protected material back to the employee using the protected content.

In this instance, the use of protected content isn’t banned or prohibited. Instead, your company can choose to use existing provisions in the law to obtain permission for acceptable use.

Create a Structured Communication Policy

Make sure that your policy is communicated throughout the company in an easy-to-access format and manner. Specify your copyright compliance procedures, what the penalties for violating those procedures are, and any guidelines employees must follow to use copyright-protected material.

Getting Permission For Sharing

In most cases, your legal department will need to obtain permission for using copyright-protected material, and there should be defined and explicit protocols for doing this. For example, if an employee (or the company) wants to use a protected piece of music at a corporate event, a public performance license may be needed. If your company wants to use a protected piece of music as background for a video or presentation, then the company will need synchronization license.

Mechanical licenses are required when your company wants to reproduce and distribute a specific protected piece for an agreed upon fee per unit manufactured or sold. Then there are digital performance right in sound recording licenses and public performance licenses for uses relating to public performance and streaming of music, respectively.

Nancy Owen is an intellectual property law professor. When not lecturing and mentoring students, she often writes about legal challenges and solutions in the modern world.

image Credit: Shutterstock / spaxiax

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