Respecting IP: doing the right thing


Kim Zwollo

Respecting IP: doing the right thing

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Through its Multinational Copyright License, RightsDirect provides easy access to a huge range of publications while respecting their rights at the same time, as Kim Zwollo explains.

There’s a paradox in corporate life today. On the one hand, organisations are under increasing pressure to function in socially responsible and sustainable ways and must develop strategies for practising corporate social responsibility (CSR), not just for the sake of marketing or their brand image. On the other hand, employees and management alike are routinely—albeit often unknowingly—behaving inappropriately and contrary to the interests of their employers by not respecting or protecting the copyright and intellectual property of authors and other content creators.

Any legitimate CSR programme needs to encompass environmental, economic and social responsibility, and copyright falls under the umbrella of CSR. Yet in today’s digital world, 76% of employees say they email published content to colleagues, according to a 2014 survey by research and advisory firm Outsell. Indeed, the average workplace is a virtual breeding ground for copyright infringement, from senior executives who routinely forward PDFs of articles, to managers who cut and paste articles into an email sent to as many as 15 colleagues.

In spite of companies’ efforts to promote ethical practices, copyright seems to stay at the bottom of the average employee’s never ending to-do list. In fact, many employees don’t realise the role that copyrighted works play in their daily work and that respecting others’ copyright is a form of practising ‘the golden rule’.

In the Outsell survey, commissioned by RightsDirect, 73% of respondents believed it was fine to share content purchased by their company with colleagues. Furthermore, according to the survey, 55% of European employees typically share information with more than five people at a time.

And yet copyright is an essential tool in the creation and distribution of new ideas. In the Outsell survey, 87% of people said that it was important to protect their company’s own IP.

Everybody may be doing it—but that doesn’t make it right

Forgetting that the phrase “ignorance of the law is no excuse” is central to many judicial systems, the unauthorised distribution of information, however common or innocent, carries potential risk to businesses. The result could be a violation of a company copyright policy and, potentially, of the law, and those violations will directly conflict with company CSR policies and ethics codes. Copyright infringement, however unintentional it may be, can jeopardise a company’s reputation and undermine its overall efforts at corporate compliance.

Copyright confusion across borders

In its simplest terms, copyright is a form of legal protection given to the works of content creators. It’s meant to encourage the development of culture, science and innovation while efficiently protecting the right of copyright owners to benefit (financially and otherwise) from their work. In a global economy, however, it has become increasingly difficult for the ordinary employee to know how to think about copyright.

For one thing, copyright law is national in scope, meaning that each country has its own version. But while there’s no such thing as international copyright, there are international treaties. The oldest and most important treaty on copyright is the Berne Convention, first signed in 1886 and revised many times since. Today, the Berne Convention has been ratified by more than 160 countries, and it continues to establish minimum standards of protection (eg, the types of works protected).

The Berne Convention leaves implementing these regulations to each signatory state. As a result, many countries have adopted legislation that goes far beyond the Berne Convention in issues addressed, leading to a fragmented copyright landscape. Navigating copyright across borders can be a daunting challenge for international companies and their worldwide subsidiaries, however strong their motivation is to comply.

Copyright challenges in an instant gratification world

Perhaps even more of an obstacle than murky cross-border copyright legislation is how easy information is to access, share and use online instantaneously. It used to be that employees relied on corporate librarians for sharing content (and seeing to any copyright issues). These days, everyone demands information immediately and any thoughts of copyright (if they occur at all) are swept away in the rush to get things done.

In the Outsell survey, 53% of people said they’d forward any and all relevant information in time-sensitive situations. Yet deadline pressure or lack of awareness isn’t an excuse that holds up in the court of public opinion (let alone in a court of law): neither can prevent the potential consequences of copyright violation, namely, a company’s suffering significant financial damages or a tarnished reputation.

Even more than financial drain, the most significant consequence of copyright infringement may be long-term damage to a corporation’s reputation and brand, and the subsequent loss of both customer and shareholder confidence and value.

A question of ethics—and of CSR

Apart from the potential legal and financial consequences, there’s also an ethical component to IP protection. Think of it as a matter of fairness. If a company values its own IP, it simply makes sense that it would want to set high standards when it comes to respecting others’ creative output.

"companies can access more than 950 million usage rights for publications offered by more than 12,000 publishers in 180 countries in the form of one annual licence."

After all, corporations increasingly stand to profit from product innovations resulting from substantial investments in research and development. That means protecting their own IP is crucial. Inherent in this need to protect that IP is the understanding that other authors of content warrant protection, too. Ultimately, it’s the principle of the golden rule, translated into business-speak as reciprocity.

Time is of the essence

So what’s standing in the way of companies and individual employees respecting copyright as a matter of course? The Outsell survey found that a substantial number of employees see getting copyright permission as a time-consuming obstacle to sharing; they assume doing so would be inconvenient and inefficient. The outreach and phone calls required to obtain permission, whether done through attorneys or corporate librarians, can cause delay.

“The survey results speak to the breadth of items on any knowledge worker’s mind today,” says Simon Alterman, vice president and lead analyst with Outsell. “We’re all doing more with less, and we’re moving faster.”

No wonder so many employees view securing permission as an undesirable distraction. Further, visitors to many websites may have developed the wrong impression about copyrighted work when they see sharing options at the bottom of many articles—share this via Facebook! Twitter! Instagram!—thinking that those options mean that they can use any article in any way they please.

“People think sharing is fine if they see everyone enabling it,” Alterman says.

What is his advice to companies? Education about copyright is essential, although it’s currently lacking in the workplace. The Outsell survey found that while most employees know their companies have a copyright policy, they often don’t know how it works. And while 77% of people believe it’s important for their company to be recognised as a socially responsible leader in their field, that doesn’t mean they’re doing the socially responsible thing themselves: Outsell found that 75% believe it’s perfectly fine to share all content obtained for free online.

Copyright compliance made easy

To stem the rising tide of shared information without respect for copyright, companies should provide mechanisms that make it easy for their employees to respect the law, without slowing them down. Subscriptions and access to publisher databases are one solution; they provide basic usage rights. The trouble is that apart from access and reading what are commonly called the rights to share or re-use other people’s works, those rights differ from publisher to publisher. Some offer licences permitting employees to legally exchange information without risk of copyright infringement as part of a subscription; others do not.

A better and more comprehensive solution is the Multinational Copyright License, which was specifically designed for the copyright needs of global companies by RightsDirect, the international subsidiary of US-based Copyright Clearance Center. The Multinational Copyright License simplifies copyright compliance by providing organisations with the rights to share content worldwide from millions of information sources while respecting IP rights.

With the Multinational Copyright License, companies can access more than 950 million usage rights for publications offered by more than 12,000 publishers in 180 countries in the form of one annual licence. RightsDirect also offers specific national licences for companies headquartered in Germany, the UK and Japan. All of these licences are cost-effective and easy to use by the company’s employees across national borders.

Instead of working against the instantaneous digital economy, RightsDirect works with it. In return, executives and employees alike get peace of mind when it comes to upholding the law, demonstrating CSR, safeguarding their brand’s image and meeting their deadlines on time.

Kim Zwollo is a general manager at RightsDirect, building key relationships globally and driving growth of international content workflow and licensing sales. He is based in Amsterdam. Zwollo is also a member of the management team at Copyright Clearance Center. He can be contacted at:  

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