Few people really understand the relationship between content in white papers and copyrights. When they develop a white paper, they often consider including good information they’ve seen published or posted elsewhere. However, that could involve breaking the law.

About copyright law

Which law? Copyright law. If you copy and use something that’s been created by someone else without obtaining their permission, your work likely violates both U.S. and global copyright provisions. If actual creator pursued an infringement case against you, you’d most likely lose and be liable for financial damages — even if they included a line giving credit to the creator.

Copyright is a type of property

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.

For example, I earn my living by writing. Companies like yours 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). You have as much right to use those words without permission as I have to walk into your home and walk out with your home theater system or priceless Beanie Baby collection. You wouldn’t consider such an act as complimenting your taste in home electronics or collectibles. You’d call it theft. And that’s exactly what it would be.

You probably don’t qualify for “fair use”

Many people who use other companies’ words without permission cite a concept called “fair use.” While such a 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. Say you’re an English teacher who wants students to understand how dialogue can advance a plot. You might reprint several lines from a Edward Albee 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?

If you were writing a post for your blog and wanted to share something 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 copy 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.

Is there a way to borrow content?

If you see something 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 it, which is known as licensing.

Protecting your white paper with a copyright

When you develop your white paper, 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 “©2024 Vermont Veeblefetzers, Inc. All rights reserved.” Doing so 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 therefore 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, not that neighbor who thinks he’s an expert from watching judge shows on TV.