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Marketers differ on copyright questions

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A lot of people still don't understand that they can't take other people's information and post it Legal stores Have some legal horror (or success) stories you'd like to share? Let us know.: It's not a simple question: Should marketers copyright the information they put on their World Wide Web site?

"Yes" seems the logical answer, but how strident should marketers be in limiting the dissemination of what is, after all, their property? And is it ever right for them to not copyright their information?

It all depends.

On the digitized Internet, a person can grab information -- text, video, audio -- from a marketer's Web site with just a few mouse clicks. From there, they can do any number of things with it, good or bad, legal or illegal.

And sometimes, people don't know they're doing anything wrong.

"A lot of people still don't understand that they can't take other people's information and post it," says Patrick Spain, president and CEO of Austin, Texas-based Hoovers, which last year discovered a man in Cleveland was posting its information on his Web site.

"He naively thought he could do it," Mr. Spain says.

The man quit when notified he was violating the law.

JUST BEING FRIENDLY

Hoovers, whose stock in trade is selling information, has posted several pages on its Web site of legalese about restrictions on use, liability and copyright issues.

Still, some companies purposely avoid flexing their online legal muscles in favor of making their sites as user-friendly as possible.

"We want people to distribute and use our information such as our description of services and new products," says a spokesperson for Federal Express Corp., Memphis, Tenn.

"That's why we haven't gone overboard" in legal language, the spokesperson says.

The company simply includes a short copyright notice on its home page.

Adds Gary Gron, corporate patent counsel for Columbus, Ind.-based Cummins Engine Co.: "If the purpose of the site is to sell products, you don't want to restrict people from distributing sales literature. It's like having sales literature at a trade show but saying you can only have one."

Like most online activity, there are no hard-and-fast rules governing protection of site content, and little cyber case law to shed guidance.

ALL OVER THE MAP

"It's all over the map from no notice to extreme disclaimers and conditions," says Mr. Gron.

Mr. Gron notes that electronic companies seem to have the lengthiest disclaimers, while manufacturers tend to have the shortest.

"Is it necessary to have warranties and disclaimers?" asks John Place Sr., corporate counsel for Mountain View, Calif.-based Adobe Systems.

"The answer is who knows whether it is necessary. There certainly have not been any court cases on this."

BALANCE LEGAL, MARKETING ISSUES

So, what's a marketer to do?

Andy Epstein, corporate counsel for Nets, a Cambridge, Mass-based provider of Internet-based business-to-business services, including Industry.net and Business Network, advises marketers to "balance your legal issues with your marketing goals. You want to cover the legal issues but you don't want to scare people away."

Ernest Ferraro, a New York lawyer specializing in intellectual property rights, advises marketers to "consider whether it would damage you if someone made an unauthorized copy" of your information, as well as the other side of the issue: Is it beneficial to have someone make a copy?

Cummins, which has mainly product information on its site, includes only a short copyright notice on its home page.

Actually, including a copyright notice is not necessary for a site to be copyright-protected provided the content is original and creative.

To be on the safe side, however, lawyers advise companies to post a copyright notice on their home page and some suggest including it on every Web page.

"It puts the world on notice that you're claiming copyright," says Neal Goldman, vice president and general counsel for Nets.

That makes it difficult for a person to turn around and claim he didn't know a site was copyright-protected.

"We have a legal link at the bottom of every page to our copyright page," says Mr. Place. "You never know what order a person will be viewing a site."

A copyright notice should include the copyright symbol and the author's name.

Mr. Ferraro suggests including the word "copyright" after the symbol since many Web browsers misread the copyright symbol.

Because a Web site's content may come from many sources and be posted so quickly, some marketers include disclaimers limiting themselves from liability if the information proves to be inaccurate.

"Because we offer services which people will use to market their businesses and to attract customers, we need to set users' expectations about the performance and reliability of the Internet," says Nets' Mr. Epstein.

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