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Copyright Smarts - 1/8/2013 -

Learn when — and how — to enforce your association’s rights.

By Kathryn Furtaw Keuneke, CAE

In the association culture of doing everything you can for your members, it’s sometimes difficult to know when to enforce your organization’s rights as copyright owner. After all, members expect that we’re here to serve them, so surely we won’t mind if they "borrow” something we’ve created — especially if they found it online.

So, how do you determine when a line has been crossed?

Attorneys Lisa V. Comforty and Gareth E. Gollrad helped clarify the boundaries of a healthy association-member relationship regarding intellectual property in the November 2012 Business of Association Publishing session "The Tangled Web: Copyrights and Contracts for Association Publishers in the Digital Age.”

Comforty, the managing editor of periodicals for the American Bar Association, and Gollrad, attorney at Gareth E. Gollrad LLC, acknowledged that addressing copyright law is difficult for associations. "We’re different,” Comforty said. "People expect to take stuff from us for free.”

The presenters walked attendees through the answers to three common contract and copyright law questions dealing with member authors:

1. Can an author post his article on his firm’s website and link to it on the association website?

2. Can the author post or link to an accompanying image?

3. Can a nonprofit organization post or link to the article?

The answers to these questions were far less clear-cut than expected, with a lot of "maybes” and "it depends.” Deciding on scenarios like these requires a careful look at the specific circumstances, attendees learned. In general, Comforty explained, a member author can post and link to their article. But, she said, the right thing for them to do is to ask first.

Comforty and Gollrad provided several tips to help attendees develop a framework for their own decision-making:

  • Consult the contract. Before responding to the author’s request, make sure to revisit the details of the contract they’ve signed regarding the submitted work.
  • Consider a revision. Author contracts can be revised to better fit the association’s goals. "Copyright law gives you a lot of flexibility to create a contract that meets your needs,” Gollrad said.
  • Respect the relationship. If you could risk upsetting a member over your decision, make sure it’s worthwhile to the association.
  • Seek advice. Know who you can consult — whether someone in-house or outside legal advice — when a situation arises that you’re unsure how to handle.
  • Weigh the cost. Consider whether honoring the member’s request (or looking the other way when they’ve already done it) will cause lost revenue or harm your organization’s mission.
  • Write it down. Learn from past experiences by recording the specific situation and your decision. These written policies will guide staff, saving time and frustration the next time an issue arises.

If you don’t yet have an author contract or yours is badly in need of revision, Comforty and Gollrad advised keeping your organization’s mission and revenue needs in mind, and soliciting input from others throughout your organization. Once it’s created, plan to revisit the contract, as circumstances will surely change over time.

When the time comes when you have to give a member author a slap on the wrist for a copyright violation, remember to be gentle in your approach. After all, we’re ultimately here to serve our members.

Kathryn Furtaw Keuneke, CAE, is editor of Round the Table, the bimonthly magazine of the Million Dollar Round Table. Association Media & Publishing sincerely thanks her for covering this education session for our members who were unable to attend.


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