“If C-SPAN is a non-profit why does it feel the need to protect its copyright?”

A print reporter asked me this question about what was probably the most popular video C-SPAN ever produced in its 27-year history–our live coverage of Stephen Colbert’s appearance at the annual White House Correspondents Association dinner in April. The 24-minute segment, in which Colbert commented wickedly on the president’s performance, had been copied and placed on several file-sharing Web sites. The chat rooms and the blogosphere went crazy with commentary about whether Colbert was funny, incisive and dead on, or rude, crude and wrong. Within a day, one Web site attracted a million hits using our video.

C-SPAN stirred the pot the next day when we invoked the notice provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to inform the infringing sites they were violating our exclusive copyright in the video. The blogosphere went wild again when the sites pulled the video. There were claims of a conspiracy to censor Colbert’s remarks. C-SPAN got complaints that we were violating our mission by preventing public access to the video. Others claimed we had no right to deny access to public domain video. Some claimed they had a right to the video because their tax dollars supported C-SPAN.

As often happens nowadays, the Web hullabaloo bled into the so-called mainstream media, which led to the reporter’s call to C-SPAN about several aspects of the Colbert video, including why we insisted on asserting our copyright in it. We used the opportunity to clear up a lot of confusion about C-SPAN in particular and about the importance of IP to non-profits in general.

The conspiracy and censorship claims were easily disposed of first, as such claims usually are. We pointed out that not only had C-SPAN aired the Colbert remarks live on television, we also reaired them at least twice and broadcast them on our Washington, D.C., radio station and distributed them nationwide on the two major satellite radio services. Further, the entire dinner coverage was available for viewing on www.c-span.org. Some censorship.

Then we explained that C-SPAN’s video coverage of public affairs events is copyrighted in the same way Fox News or CNN video coverage is. Neither the popularity of an event, nor the fact that it involves public affairs subject matter, makes the video coverage of it public domain material. And, C-SPAN’s status as a non-profit organization does not make our programming free for the taking. If that were so, the non-profit National Geographic would have to give away its popular magazine. It doesn’t. We also explained that C-SPAN is a completely private organization with no links to the government, and that we have never in our history received, or sought, any taxpayer funds.

Then back to the original question: Why does C-SPAN or any non-profit “feel the need” to protect its copyright? The first point is that non-profit status doesn’t somehow void IP rights. When non-profits, including charities, create works that have value, they have the same right under the law to protect that value as do for-profit organizations. The second point is that the protection of copyrights, trademarks and patents is often essential to a non-profit’s ability to fulfill its exempt purpose. “Feeling” has nothing to do with it.

Indeed, effective protection of intellectual property is a duty of non-profit managers. Lax attention to trademarks, for example, could weaken a charity’s profile, leading to less effective fundraising. In the case of an operating non-profit such as C-SPAN, which depends on the licensing of its video for revenue, inattention to copyright means less revenue.

The truthiness of copyright, as Steven Colbert would say, is what you feel about it. If you feel you can ignore copyright, go right ahead. But the truth of copyright is that you must respect it and enforce it. Another truth is that Mr. Colbert is a comedian, not a lawyer.