There are many misunderstandings about white papers and copyrights. When organizations develop white papers, they may want to include information they’ve seen in another publication or online. However, doing so may involve breaking the law.

About copyright law

Which law? Copyright law. Unless they obtained specific permission from the creators of the publication or website, reprinting the item violated both U.S. and global copyright provisions. If those creators pursued the case, the organization would lose and be liable for financial damages, regardless of their intent — and even if they included a line giving credit to the original creator.

Copyright is a form of property

If you’ve used other people’s or organization’s words in your own materials or communications efforts, you may wonder why that’s wrong. When you reprinted that story from Veeblefetzer Industry Report in your company’s newsletter, you put their name at the bottom. How can that be illegal? The simple answer is you’ve taken somebody else’s property and used it without asking.

I earn my living by writing. Companies and other organizations pay me to create white papers and other materials. That’s my product and it belongs to me (or to my clients, in the case of what’s known as work for hire). Other people have as much right to use those words without permission as I have to walk into their homes and walk out with their home theater systems. They wouldn’t consider such an act as complimenting their taste in home electronics; they’d call it theft. And that’s exactly what it would be.

You probably don’t qualify for “fair use”

Many people who have used other companies’ words without permission cite a concept called “fair use.” Most encountered it while they were in school. While that concept does exist, it’s widely misunderstood. The basic idea behind fair use is that you can copy material without copyright infringement for certain purposes, such as commenting upon it or developing a formal critique. Suppose you’re an English teacher and you want students to understand how dialogue can be used to advance a plot. You might reprint several lines from a David Mamet play to illustrate the idea. That’s fair use. But if you use the school’s copier to reprint the entire play so your students didn’t have to buy a copy, that’s infringement.

What is legal with white papers and copyrights?

If you were writing a post for your blog and wanted to share an idea I’ve mentioned in this article, you could quote me by reprinting a sentence or a short paragraph, and you’d be okay under fair use. Reprint this entire article without asking or take a paragraph from it and claim it as your own writing, and you’ve violated the law. Copying the full length or a substantial part of something almost never falls under fair use.

How can you borrow content?

If you see something in a publication or online that you’d like to share in your white paper, what can you do? It’s pretty simple: ask for permission. Many authors will be flattered and will happily give you an okay (maybe for a credit line and a copy of the finished piece). A copyright owner might also request a payment to allow you to use the content, which is known as licensing.

Protecting your white paper with a copyright

When you develop your own white paper, be sure to include a copyright line and the words “all rights reserved,” which adds international protections. There is a specific format: you need either the word “copyright” or the copyright symbol (©), followed by the year of creation and your name or your organization’s name. For example, your company’s copyright line might say “©2021 Vermont Veeblefetzers, Inc. All rights reserved.” That gives you what’s known as statutory copyright protection. If you want to defend your copyright in court, you’ll need to register it with the U.S. Copyright Office, which involves completing a form and paying a filing fee (normally $45 or $65).

Important note: I’m not an attorney and unqualified to deliver legal advice. The information in this blog post is based on general knowledge. If you have a specific question about copyright law or need to pursue a copyright action, consult with a competent attorney.

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