Imitation may be the highest form of flattery, but it can also be illegal. Your meeting is your property and should be protected--everything from its name and the design of its logo to session handouts and tapes of the proceedings. In this column, the first of a two-part series, we will discuss intellectual property rights and obligations.

Intellectual property refers to things that are created from intellectual efforts, such as books, software, designs, and slogans. Copyright and trademark are the two aspects of intellectual property law that meeting executives deal with on a regular basis. They use their organization's name and logo to market their meetings, and they create conference brochures and other original works.

Meeting executives need to understand the value of their intellectual property and to evaluate their copyright and trademark protection before they discover that what they thought they owned really belongs to someone else.

Defining Copyright and Trademark Copyright law protects the original expression of an idea in a tangible form (books, magazine articles, computer software, photographs, and music). Copyright protection requires that the work contain some measure of originality. For example, a list of names copied from a phone book typically cannot be copyrighted, unless the list-maker organized the names in an original way. For example, an exhibitor list developed for a particular meeting may be original enough to be protected. A copyright also protects exclusive rights to reproduce the work, distribute copies, and prepare derivative works.

Trademark law protects any word, symbol, or device used to identify the source of goods or services. Names, logos, acronyms, and slogans all may be protectable trademarks. Trademarks minimize customer confusion as to who is providing goods or services, indicate a level of quality, and help market the product or service. Subcategories of trademarks include service marks, which indicate the source of a service; collective membership marks, used by members of a group to indicate affiliation; and certification marks, which signify that goods or services meet certain standards.

Securing Copyright Protection Copyright protection exists automatically when a work is created, regardless of whether a notice of copyright appears on it or if it is registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. But that doesn't mean that meeting executives should neglect notice or registration. Adding a notice--"Copyright (or (c)) 1998 XYZ Organization"--warns the public that the creator claims copyright to the work. Additional language can provide even clearer indication of the owner's intent: "All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced, distributed, or otherwise used by any party without the express written permission of the XYZ Organization."

Formally registering copyright is not required, but it does provide benefits if someone later infringes the work. Copyrights must be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office before an infringer can be pursued in federal court. In addition, if a work is registered within three months of its publishing date, or before infringement occurs, the copyright owner may be able to recover statutory damages and attorneys' fees. That represents a significant advantage to the copyright owner, because actual damages need not be proven.

The copyright registration process is fairly simple and inexpensive. An application must be completed and sent, along with copies of the work, to the U.S. Copyright Office. The Copyright Office filing fee is $20 per application.

While meeting executives are encouraged to protect their copyrights, they also should be careful not to violate that of others. Do not use any copyrighted works without permission. With respect to music, meeting executives are all too familiar with the requirements of various music licensing organizations. Similar specific permission must be obtained before reproducing other materials such as books or magazines (even excerpts), photographs, or computer software. It is not enough simply to acknowledge the source.

Also, when you organize events at which speakers are presenting original works, it is prudent to have presenters acknowledge, in writing, that their materials are their own and do not violate anyone else's copyright. In the next column, we will continue our discussion of intellectual property issues.*