Sharing digital information gets faster and easier every day, and as a result the risk of copyright infringement in the workplace grows proportionally. It takes just seconds for an employee to click-and-drag copyright-protected content into an email, but the resulting infringement litigation can take years and cost millions. The responsibility to ensure that employees are adequately educated on the proper treatment of copyrighted information often falls to in-house counsel. According to a recent survey, however, such efforts frequently fall short.

The problem isn’t that employees want to break the law; it’s that many of them lack a clear understanding of copyright issues and relevant corporate policies. A study by the information industry research firm Outsell Inc. found that 44 percent of employees were unsure whether their company had a copyright policy, while 17percent guessed that a copyright policy existed, but weren’t sure of the details. Another 5 percent believed there was no copyright policy in place at all. In other words, more than two-thirds of employees are at least partially ignorant of their companies’ copyright compliance programs.

Moreover, employees often aren’t cognizant of exactly what copyright infringement means. After all, simply pasting a few charts or a research report into an office memo doesn’t feel like wrongdoing—it feels like doing your job. The Internet makes it extremely easy to share digital content, and the boundaries of legal use of copyrighted material aren’t always clear. Web pages are peppered with widgets that encourage users to email links or post responses to articles via social media. “Certainly it seems publishers are implying it’s fine to share if everyone is enabling it,” says Ned May, author of the Outsell study.

Asked whether they agreed if information obtained online or in print at no charge can be shared without permission, fully 51percent answered yes. But just because you can access information doesn’t mean you can share it, and the stakes for failing to understand the distinction can be high. Consider the case of a company where one senior executive regularly shared copyrighted information with two colleagues via email: Settling the resulting infringement case cost the employer $500,000.

One senior law-firm litigator who frequently represents publishers believes many companies remain unaware of the seriousness of copyright infringement. “When I tell the m they’re talking about statutory damages and exposure to millions of dollars in judgments, they express great surprise,” he says.

Building Copyright Awareness

Still, most employees want to do the right thing, even if they’re not certain what that means. In fact, 47percent of employee surveyed indicated they do think about copyright issues before forwarding information in an email.

“Most people want to follow the law,” says another prominent law-firm partner. “Employees become frightened when they realize they’re doing something that creates liability—and they always want to fix it, because they didn’t mean to do it. In this digital culture, they didn’t realize it was infringement.”

The legal department can play a leading role in helping employees understand the boundaries of copyright infringement, and some surprisingly simple first steps can represent large strides in addressing this complicated issue. Distilling exactly what a copyright is goes a long way in making a policy’s rules less daunting to employees. Corporate counsel should offer clear examples of what is and is not protected under a copyright. Employees need to understand that pixels are just as protected as paper, and free information is not the same thing as freely shareable information.

At multinational companies, counsel should take particular care to communicate that information sharing practices must be compliant in multiple jurisdictions, highlighting any nuances that might be different from country to country. Outside organizations, such as the Copyright Clearance Center (CCC), offer a variety of licensing solutions, including a multinational license that can help employees in responsibly sharing content.

Compliance efforts are by no means limited to the legal function, and active collaboration across departments is essential to crafting an effective companywide policy. Counsel should seek input from IT, HR, marketing and corporate communication departments, as well as any internal research or corporate library functions. Corporate counsel who involve as many voices as possible don’t just gain valuable insight from various experts within the company, they gain a better understanding of the company’s existing information management practices and communication needs. They also gain additional channels through which to disseminate the new policy, and collaborators to help in ongoing training efforts.

Treated as a team effort, a copyright compliance policy will have a greater relevance to employees throughout the company. Senior executives’ information sharing practices may differ significantly from those of researchers, or sales and marketing personnel. Tailoring compliance messages to the extent possible helps employees see how the policy pertains to them.

Most importantly, corporate counsel should provide clear guidance on how and when employees should seek help if they have copyright questions. Make it easy for employees to get fast answers. A few minutes on the phone can save hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties and legal fees. Corporate counsel should also list procedures for what employees should do if they witness infringement within the company.

Extra Help for Inevitable Violations

No policy, of course, can prevent all violations, and counsel should be aware of the reasons why employees infringe copyrights even when they are fully aware of them. In some cases employees may ignore compliance rules simply because they believe getting the necessary permission obstructs their own speed and efficiency. This can be a particular concern at growing companies that strive to gain an advantage.

The Outsell study suggests that employees at medium-sized companies struggling to get a foothold in a tumultuous economy may be especially at risk for copyright violations. The number of times per week that employees at these companies forwarded information increased 77percent since 2005. This rapid increase “speaks to the breadth of items on any knowledge worker’s mind today,” says May. “We’re all doing more with less, and we’re moving faster.” Already overworked employees are often reluctant to spend hours obtaining permissions when they can copy and paste a document into an email in a fraction of that time.

The best way to ensure compliance among stressed and harried employees is to make it easy. Companies might consider purchasing copyright licenses to publications that are essential reading for a company’s industry. Some publishers sell individual licenses allowing employees to share material with others in the company. A more convenient and streamlined alternative is the CCC’s Annual Copyright License for business. CCC’s license simplifies compliance, providing rights to research and industry news, newspapers, blogs, and much more and additional licenses can be obtained for images and film and TV scenes. It also offers real-time data on an employee’s content usage rights, helping to cut through copyright confusion and to facilitate compliance.

A strong copyright license, paired with a comprehensive and accessible compliance policy, are powerful tools to help companies limit copyright liability. General Counsel who ensure that employees share information legally don’t just keep their company out of court, they underscore the company’s values. “You can’t say that integrity is a core value and then be a scofflaw on copyright infringement,” says the general counsel of a large healthcare company. Law departments that prioritize copyright compliance prioritize respect for original ideas and innovation.

Just as importantly, when employees breathe easier about avoiding infringement, they can focus on becoming more active and creative content users. Employees must be enabled to engage in the industry-wide conversations that now move faster than ever. With the right copyright compliance tools in place, businesses can be leading voices in these exchanges, without the fear of copyright violations.

If you are unsure about how to get started in developing a comprehensive copyright compliance policy or it’s time to revisit and update your policy, Copyright Clearance Center offers, Guidelines for Creating a Copyright Compliance Policy. To receive a copy, register here.