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Protect yourself from copyright trolls

An Increasingly Perilous Legal Environment

Bounties for copyright violations are a growing law firm income stream. Aggressive law firms contract with copyright holders to enforce their copyrights when WebCrawler software identifies graphics on servers. Software may flag PowerPoints, PDFs, videos featuring graphics, and Word documents. The law firm will threaten an organization or individual on whose server the copyrighted content was found with trial (legal fees and a maximum fine of $150,000 per violation) or settlement for $750 or more per graphic. The doctrine of “fair use” does not protect presenters who distribute copyrighted articles, book chapters, high-resolution graphics, or videos in their training materials, webinars, and/or handouts. It does not matter whether the presentation is free or commercial or for a university course. Recently, a California law firm representing Science Photo Library contacted a biofeedback organization. Their WebCrawler software had found an unlicensed image on a password-protected PDF from my free, non-commercial 2022 webinar. Their law clerk demanded $750 payment to avoid trial. The membership organization settled after vigorous negotiation. Most presenters are ethical professionals who often do not know where they found all their images. When they do, they may assume that attributing the source and engaging in teaching protects them from legal action. For heaven's sake, they are not monetizing the images by placing them on coffee mugs or t-shirts. Unfortunately, the doctrine of fair use is narrower than educators may imagine, and attribution and teaching will not dissuade the law clerk pressing you to settle to avoid an expensive trial and ruinous penalties. Fortunately, there are steps you can take immediately to protect yourself.

How to Avoid Copyright Infringement

To avoid copyright infringement in live talks and webinars that incorporate copyrighted graphics and video, webinar presenters should follow these practical steps:

1. Educate Yourself on Copyright and Fair Use: Gain a thorough understanding of what copyright law covers, the principles of fair use, and how they apply to educational and non-commercial presentations.

2. Use Licensed or Free-to-Use Materials: Whenever possible, use materials licensed for use in your context or in the public domain. You may purchase the right to use graphics and videos from sites like Resources like Creative Commons (e.g., Wikimedia) and various open-source platforms offer a wide range of graphics and videos that can be used legally without copyright infringement.

3. Red-Flag Sources: Graphics from journal articles and textbooks or high-resolution graphics sold by commercial sellers require immediate attention. If you can’t obtain legal permissions, remove them.

4. Obtain Permission When Necessary: If you plan to use copyrighted materials beyond the scope of fair use, reach out to the copyright holder to obtain explicit permission. Keep a record of this permission in case of future disputes.

5. Provide Proper Attribution: Even when using materials under fair use, public domain, or with permission, always provide appropriate attribution to the original creator. This not only respects the creator's rights but also enhances the professionalism of your presentation.

6. Use Materials for Educational Purposes: Ensure that using copyrighted materials clearly serves an educational purpose, adds value to your presentation, and does not compete commercially with the original works.

7. Limit the Quantity of Use: Use only the amount of the copyrighted material necessary for the educational purpose. Short clips, small excerpts, or low-resolution images are more likely to be considered fair use.

8. Create Original Works: Whenever feasible, create your own graphics, videos, or slides. This not only avoids copyright issues but also tailors the materials specifically to your presentation's needs. Applications like DALL-E allow you to use AI to create original graphics. You may hire artists on services like Fiverr to create affordable graphics.

9. Review and Modify Prepared Content: Before your presentation, review all materials to ensure they comply with copyright laws. You can use applications like Google Lens to identify their source. If unsure about the copyright status of any material, replace it.

10. Stay Informed of Copyright Changes: Copyright laws and interpretations of fair use can evolve. Stay informed about any changes in copyright legislation or case law that might affect how you can use materials in your presentations.

By following these steps, webinar presenters can significantly reduce the risk of copyright infringement while ensuring their presentations are engaging, educational, and legally compliant. You have my permission to share WEBTOON with your colleagues and organizations. You may also emblazon coffee mugs and t-shirts with it.

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