Copyrights Are Critical For Associations

Date: December 19, 2013

Books, publications, websites, white papers, conference proceedings, magazines and newsletters constitute some of the most valuable property that associations have. These materials may be protected by the copyright laws, and it’s critical that associations maximize such protection. It’s important to make sure both that the organization owns or has adequate rights to use and publish any materials, and also that it has the ability to maintain control of them for purposes of ensuring their integrity and maximizing value to the organization. Understanding key aspects of copyright law is crucial for association executives to ensure proper copyright protection for their publications and other materials. Here are a couple key points:

Any original work is protected under the copyright law as soon as it is created and put into a physical form. Once a work is created and fixed in a tangible medium – for example, put on paper, recorded on audio- or videotape, or typed into a computer file – copyright protection attaches. This means that as soon as an association staff person or a volunteer writes an article or white paper, copyright protection begins for that work. The rights accrue upon creation – no notice or registration is required, although there are benefits from meeting formal registration and notice requirements; it is advisable to register copyrighted publications with the U.S. Copyright Office and to include a copyright notice on all publications. The proper form of notice has three elements: (1) the copyright symbol ©, the word, “copyright” or the abbreviation, “copr.,” (2) the year of first publication of the work, and (3) the name of the copyright owner.

The author owns a “bundle of rights” to a copyrighted work, including the right to reproduce, publish, sell and make derivative works. The ownership of copyrights can be assigned or transferred to another person, but the transfer must be in writing signed by the person transferring ownership. The only exception is the employer/employee situation under the work-for-hire doctrine, but otherwise all transfers of copyright must meet this requirement. A written transfer of a copyright is typically called an assignment, and can be included in a written agreement; it doesn’t have to be in a stand-alone document.

Copyright permission, called a license, to use copyright works can also be granted by the copyright owner. Licenses can be exclusive or nonexclusive, and they can be for the entire bundle of rights or just for limited rights. Licenses can also be in writing, can be oral, or can be implied from the parties’ behavior or in the course of their dealings. However, to ensure that everyone agrees on the terms of any permission or license, it’s best to have such licenses in writing.

It is very common for an association to engage consultants or contractors to write material for the association’s publications; however, just because the association paid for the work to be done, that doesn’t mean the association owns it. The independent contractor owns the work unless rights are assigned or transferred in writing. So, all agreements with contractors should include provisions regarding ownership of any materials or works developed or created, and they should be formally assigned in the agreement if the association intends to own such works. These are just some of the important points about copyrights that association executives should understand.