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Share news stories without permission, get fined?

An antipiracy group settles for $300,000 with a marketing company over distribution of "press packets" containing stories it hadn't gotten permission to reprint.

If you're fond of occasionally circulating the full text of news stories to amuse your workmates, you may be in the clear, copyright law-wise. But systematic copying and blasting of articles for money-making purposes could get you into trouble, as evidenced by the latest settlement reached by an antipiracy trade group.

The Software Information & Industry Association (SIIA) on Thursday announced a $300,000 truce with a California-based market research company called Knowledge Networks over the company's distribution of "press packets" containing copyrighted news articles without permission or licenses. (Here's a PDF of the press release.)

Software & Information Industry Association

The dispatches, which were first paper-based and then evolved into electronic form, sometimes contained articles owned by SIIA members like the Associated Press, Reed Elsevier and United Press International, according to SIIA. They were circulated "on a regular basis" among the company's employees, who are located in San Francisco, New York and a number of other cities.

This settlement marks the first under SIIA's new "Corporate Content Anti-Piracy Program." The organization, which has historically focused more on software piracy, dangles rewards ranging from $500 to $1 million for tipsters and said it is awarding $6,000 to the anonymous informant in this case. The group is pursuing investigations against a number of other companies on similar grounds, said SIIA litigation attorney Scott Bain. He said couldn't divulge any more details.

But what about fair use, which makes allowances for use of copyrighted content without authorization for noncommercial or educational purposes?

Attorneys interviewed by CNET said it's hard to make blanket conclusions about what is and isn't allowed in such situations. When determining whether fair use is a factor, though, one of the most important considerations is whether copying the work "has an adverse impact on the publisher or the author," said Ralph Oman, an intellectual property attorney with the Washington, D.C., firm Dechert and a former U.S. Register of Copyrights under Republican administrations.

Let's say your boss sends you and your colleagues a couple of articles each day, either for your amusement or your enlightenment. If you wouldn't have otherwise subscribed to that publication or gone to the trouble of visiting the publisher's Web site and downloading it yourself, then it would be hard for the publisher or author to make a legitimate claim of lost value, so that factor would weigh in your favor.

The fair use doctrine also sometimes permits reprinting excerpts of copyrighted works for certain purposes without permission--or linking to the full text. The purpose of the copying--for example, whether it is commercial or noncommercial--is key, though.

"If it's something that's done systematically and regularly and done with a commercial interest, it's tough to pass muster on the fair use doctrine," Oman said, adding that many news organizations have been solving that problem by reaching licensing agreements with companies that want to reproduce their work.

In this case, the mailings were clearly being used "in furtherance of their business purposes," Bain said. Knowledge Networks clearly believed the content was valuable enough to collect and circulate to its members, which means "potentially it's a market that could have been developed by our relevant members," he added.

"If we came across a report of infringement, and it turned out to be a student that was writing commentary on different styles of reporting in the United States during this period, we're not going to pursue that, it very well could be fair use," Bain said.

Knowledge Networks, for its part, apologized for the behavior and agreed, in addition to the payout, to send its employees to copyright compliance training. The company said it "disseminated copies of relevant newspaper and magazine articles in the good faith belief that it was lawful to do so," the company said in a statement. "We now understand that that practice may violate the copyright rights of those publications."