How To Avoid Copyright Infringement

Is your campus using training videos, checklists or crisis plans that have been plagiarized?

“Why re-create the wheel?” This oft repeated refrain can become problematic if the intellectual property rights of others are not respected. Though it is sadly not uncommon for people to intentionally plagiarize the works of others, it is probably even more common for people to inadvertently violate copyright laws by using information they incorrectly think they have permission to use. It can be highly embarrassing for a campus safety official to be accused of plagiarism. It can be more embarrassing for them to be named in a federal copyright violation proceeding. It can be far worse to have to settle such a case.

These types of situations can put a real damper on one’s career, particularly in a field where reputation is so critical. This trap is now even easier to fall into because of how common it is for copyrighted and often registered works to be passed around virally.  

Litigation Can Be Costly for Both Sides
Violation of copyrights can be prosecuted in federal courts by an attorney who is has passed the bar in any state. If the copyright for the misused information has been registered, the plaintiff can seek and often recover not only damages but attorney’s fees from the defendant. These cases can drag on for years, and the legal fees can become rather high. This often results in a hefty settlement by the defendant after a couple of years of the attorneys slugging it out. Plaintiff’s counsel can also file a complaint with a state regulatory agency, which can result in large fines and a stronger position for their civil action.  

Another potentially adverse situation is for the issue to crop up during litigation following a safety incident. For example, having a plaintiff’s counsel prove that the educational organization illegally used the intellectual property of others during a civil action involving death or serious injury of victims would not be a very positive experience.

Copyright problems can arise from the misuse of videos. One large school district learned this at considerable expense when they were taken to court because a school principal showed a training video to school staff in violation of the terms of use. The company that produced the video requires a per-person fee be paid for use of the videos for training. Apparently, an employee who had a beef with the administrator notified the company that the video had been used without paying the appropriate fees, and the company sought legal redress. The district now requires that a permission letter be obtained by the video copyright holder before any training videos are shown to staff.

More commonly, videos or segments of videos are unlawfully copied, shown and posted on Web sites resulting in a legal transgression.

Crisis Plans Can Have Copyright Issues
Another common type of copyright problem involves the use of checklists and assessment tools.  A common scenario is for someone to knowingly copy the content and claim that they have developed it to impress others in their organization. Another member of the organization, not knowing that the information has been stolen, shares it with a colleague from other organizations and the wider viral dissemination of the property begins. The organizations that spend considerable time and money developing these types of tools can often be fiercely protective of their investment and are quite prone to “lawyer up” to prevent the significant loss of revenue that can occur when their intellectual property is being given away for free.  

One of the most common types of campus safety copyright violations involves the use of copyright protected materials for crisis plan development. Often following the same types of patterns listed above, copyrighted information ends up in an organization’s crisis plan without proper authorization from the copyright holder. We see this in about 25 percent of the crisis plans we evaluate for clients as well in our school safety malpractice litigation work.

Material on the Web Can Be Problematic
Campus safety professionals should be alert to the possibility that information they find posted on a Web site or that is passed on by a colleague may be copyright protected. Keeping in mind that the person who transmits the information to you may not be aware that the information was passed to them illegally, careful consideration should be given before content is incorporated into official documents for your organization. Due diligence and proper documentation can help reduce the risk of an unpleasant court encounter and the resulting hard questions by the top brass. 

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Tagged with: Lawsuits

About the Author


Michael Dorn serves as the Executive Director of Safe Havens International, a global non profit campus safety center. During his 30 year campus safety career, Michael has served as a university police officer, corporal, sergeant and lieutenant. He served as a school system police chief for ten years before being appointed the lead expert for the nation's largest state government K-20 school safety center. The author of 25 books on school safety, his work has taken him to Central America, Mexico, Canada, Europe, Asia, South Africa and the Middle East. Michael welcomes comments, questions or requests for clarification at Note: The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety magazine.

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