Dealing with third-party content can seem to be pretty daunting, and in truth, it is challenging. There are a few things you can do ahead of time, though, to help make the process a bit easier and more manageable.

First, develop an intellectual property policy in conjunction with your organization’s legal counsel. Talk to your counsel about how you use the material and they will help you formulate a policy that will mitigate risk and help you develop clear communications to staff and faculty about third-party content. Have honest conversations with your faculty about copyright and the challenges it poses, and provide them with materials to educate them on what to look for when they are selecting images and materials to include. Once the policy is in place, and you have shared it with faculty and staff, create forms for faculty to use to disclose any third-party content in their materials. Include third-party content due dates in your project timelines; remember, it can frequently take six weeks or more to hear back from copyright owners, so you’ll want to encourage faculty to think ahead. One important note: No response does not equal tacit permission. You have to hear back from the copyright owner in the affirmative before including the material.

Copyright permissions can also be expensive. Be proactive in determining what you can afford to spend and include that in your budgeting process. Then work with the faculty to make decisions about what to include.

Look for public domain or no- or low-cost images. Consider Wikipedia, and federal government Web sites, particularly that of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One caveat: not everything there is public domain or free of copyright, so make sure you read through the information provided to ensure that the image is in the public domain or has no restrictions on usage. The good news is that all of the above-mentioned sites typically include very clear information about copyright ownership.

As busy CME professionals, it is sometimes disappointing to have one more thing to worry about, but I hope that the path has now become a bit clearer. Making some process changes and asking the right questions can make complying with copyright law a bit less confusing and help avoid lawsuits.

Elizabeth Campbell is the manager of continuing professional development activities at the American Academy of Family Physicians, and she is passionate about Family Physicians’ maintenance of certification. She developed a career-long interest in copyright during her decade spent in the publishing industry, and enjoys writing and speaking about the topic. However, she is not a lawyer; the material in this article is being provided for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. If you have specific questions about how you use intellectual property, you should consult your legal counsel. If you have general questions about copyright and the CME environment, she is happy to have a discussion. She can be contacted by e-mail at

Related Article
How to Prevent Intellectual Property Theft

The Lowdown on Intellectual Property