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 the design of its logo tapes of the proceedings. In this column, the first of a two-part series, we will discuss meeting planners' intellectual property rights and obligations.
Intellectual property refers to those things that are created as the result of intellectual efforts, such as books, software, designs, and catchy 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. Planners need to understand the value of their organization's intellectual property and to evaluate their copyright and trademark protection, or lack of it.
Defining Copyright and Trademark Copyright law protects the original expression of ideas in such tangible forms as 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 a creative and original way. For example, an exhibitor list developed for a particular meeting may be original enough to be protected. A copyright not only protects the original idea, but also includes 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 particular goods or services. Names, logos, acronyms, and slogans all may be protectable. Trademarks help market products or services by minimizing customer confusion as to who is providing them, and are meant, typically, to indicate a consistent level of quality.
Securing Copyright Protection Copyright protection exists automatically when a work is created, regardless of whether a notice of copyright appears on a work or the work is registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. But that doesn't mean that meeting planners should neglect notice or registration. Adding a notice--something like "Copyright (or "(c)") 1998 XYZ Organization"--serves as a warning to the public. Additional language can provide an 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 a copyright is not required. However, it does provide definite benefits if someone later infringes the work by, for example, producing a CD-ROM version of your conference proceedings without authorization. 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 filing fee is $20 per application.
While planners are encouraged to protect their copyrights, they also should be careful not to violate those of others. With respect to music, planners 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 organizations plan events at which speakers present original works, it is prudent to have them acknowledge, in writing, that their materials are their own and do not violate anyone else's copyright.
In the next issue, we will continue our discussion of intellectual property issues.