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The Truth About Who Owns Online Content - 2/14/2012 -

There’s no easy answer, but one thing’s for sure: You are the first line of defense for your association.

By Amy Dvorak

The Stop Online Piracy Act debate has left not only individuals to ponder online content ownership, but companies and associations, as well. Who owns online content? In determining the answer to that, we must also ask the following: What kind of information is it? Who produced it? How is it being used?

That’s because the big question is not who owns online content, but rather, does ownership even matter when there are so many other factors at play?

At a recent Association Media & Publishing education session at the Business of Association meeting in Chicago, the session, "Who Owns Online Content?” speakers Mary Innis from the Innis Law Group; Lisa Stegink with Chicago Law Partners; and Amir Azaran of Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg LLP tackled the subject of online content. They provided an overview of "ownership” law, organization websites and content, user-generated content, and information collected by organizations. They further helped attendees discover the legal principles of determining ownership and using electronic information. Here are the highlights from the presentation.

Azaran first lead the session by explaining the following fundamentals:

· Copyright Law gives an author exclusive rights to copy, modify, distribute, perform, or display his/her work. "If you write a newspaper article stored on a computer, it’s tangible, and you have rights to that,” Azaran says.

· Trademark is a designation used to identify sellers of goods or services and to distinguish the seller from other sources.

· Trade Secret Law is information that derives economic value from not being readily ascertainable by others, and reasonable efforts are used to maintain its secrecy. A common example? Top-secret recipes (think Coca-Cola). In association settings? Member lists.

· Normal Property Law Principals establishes exclusive possession of an interest that is capable of precise definition, such as domain names.

While these laws may help to clarify ownership, that doesn’t determine what we can and cannot do with online content, according to Azaran, who cited examples like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). With the Internet comes an increase of external messaging, user-generated content, and "with that comes a lot of caution,” added Innis in her presentation, which followed Arazan’s.

"Social media allows you to not just push out content but to really engage in dialogue,” she says. "You can tell the public at large what your association is about, use it to promote events, and it’s even used to discuss controversial subjects. All of a sudden, you have a dialogue and can risk losing control over content.”

When you post content, people will respond, and it’s up to association professionals to take aim at the target and set forth standards of conduct. Innis referred to Procter & Gamble’s Old Spice video that garnered a lot of attention, including that of celebrity Alyssa Milano. She responded to the video with a YouTube video of her own, sparking a video dialogue with Old Spice. Milano took the opportunity to request that the company donate $250,000 to charity, which Procter & Gamble did.

So what happens when dialogue escalates as a result of your association’s social media? Be prepared. Develop a social media policy and seek input from legal, marketing, and membership, Innis suggests. Set forth standards of conduct, including how to deal with negative or controversial posts or varied viewpoints. She concluded her session with the following best practices in social media: representation (identifying yourself and role), responsibility, and respect.

Stegink took over the session to discuss policies, specifically terms of use and access agreements. "Remember, an association is a private forum,” she says. "Terms and agreements are appropriate for websites and social networking sites.”

But what resonated most with the conference’s media audience was obtaining written agreements to protect against usage claims. With regard to contributor agreements, Stegink suggested that the audience incorporate purpose into the agreements, whether that’s the association completely owning the content or seeking only to obtain permission (license to use). The same goes for repurposed content, she says, along with quotes or testimonials.

So does ownership matter? Stegink put it into perspective: "What if you don’t get permission? You may have to destroy all your copies, pay damages, and spend time, money, and energy defending the association.” It was more than a message of better safe than sorry; it was a cold, hard reminder that we as media professionals are the first lines of defense in protecting our associations.

Amy Dvorak is the editor of publications at the Association of Legal Administrators. Association Media & Publishing sincerely thanks her for volunteering to cover this event for members who were unable to attend.


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