Copyright issues for cases

By Clare Painter

copyright symbol held by business manIn today’s digital world, it is easier than ever before to reuse and redistribute content, but copyright legislation varies across the world, and has advanced far more slowly than technology. We used to think that copyright for written works was only of interest to publishers and authors, but this is no longer true.

Business schools, along with businesses, societies and other organisations, are increasingly taking practical steps to manage these risks, bringing consistency to the way copyright material is used in print and online, and making it easier to share good practice across the organisation. Often, the school will make available practical copyright advice and assistance for faculty members.

For the organisation, a Copyright Audit is often the first step, helping to spot any gaps in the way copyright is currently managed, and defining the copyrights and licences which they already hold.

You will save time and avoid pitfalls more easily if you have copyright guidelines and templates to refer to. For example, should requests for reuse always be passed back to the business school, rather than being handled by faculty authors directly?

What does this mean for faculty?globe

Digital publishing and distribution undoubtedly offer you opportunities to reach a wider audience but, to avoid copyright problems, you do need to pay a little more attention to any third party material you incorporate.

Writing a case: copyright questions

What has changed in the way copyright affects cases? In this article we’ll explore creating, teaching, distributing and handling permissions for your case.

Types of content

  • Naturally, you will have the involvement of the company described in the case, and copyright releases for all the work you have done together.
  • Next, there is your own text, and perhaps also your own images. These may automatically be owned by your business school, depending on the arrangement you have with them.
  • Are you using public domain material, or content offered under an open licence? Look out for any special terms which might trip you up: for example, some open licences don’t allow you to make modifications.
  • Content found freely accessible online can cause problems, as so much is uploaded in breach of copyright, whether knowingly or not. Identifying who legitimately owns copyright is therefore important, but not always easy.
  • Begin by applying a “common sense” test. Is it clear who created the material, and does that match with the name of the user who uploaded it on the webpage where you found it?
  • If the material is no longer protected by copyright, have you considered other related rights? For example, a figure might have been adapted from another work.

Tips for clearing permissions

Define how the material will be used:
  • Both in print and online?
  • Only for course participants at your school, or also available externally?
  • How many participants/readers are expected?
  • Licence period, territory (usually worldwide), language/s used?
  • Are you likely to be able to clear a licence which covers all the above?
  • If it’s likely to be difficult, an alternative source might be quicker and less complicated.
  • Start early! Rights holders will sometimes take time to respond, but you cannot assume they agree if they are slow to reply! It could happen that your request is refused.
  • If you don’t hear back promptly, chase for a reply but wait before publishing.
network links


Copyright rules are still catching up with the nuances of linking to or embedding third party content. This is further complicated by the fact that digital publishing is, effectively, worldwide, so we have to bear in mind the approaches taken by multiple jurisdictions.

A recent case in the German courts, for instance, ruled that you should only use links to properly authorised content. That might sound obvious, but sites such as Google Images and YouTube do not themselves own any of the content featured on their sites.

It’s therefore entirely up to you to check whether material has been uploaded by the legitimate rights holder, or by someone else. Certain rights holders also require you to notify them when you link, though this is quick to do.

When you receive a request for reuse

reuse green sign

You may find that requests for republication or permission come to you directly, either as a brief email or publisher’s contract. However, many schools retain copyright in the work you have carried out as part of your faculty role, in which case they will negotiate licences directly. Check with the person who manages copyright at your school.

Avoiding pitfalls: reuse in a textbook

Let’s take an example: a publisher wants to republish your case, perhaps in a textbook, and sends you their standard contract. The fees for such reuse can vary widely vary depending on the amount of material being used and the level of anticipated sales.

However, there can also be copyright issues:

  • teaching use – you want to be sure that you can still use the case in your teaching: check what the contract says about exclusivity, and reuse after publication.
  • permissions – usually you and/or the school are responsible for any necessary clearances. Make sure you have – and keep – all permission records. If a copyright holder makes a legal claim after publication, this will be passed on to you.
  • signatories – as above, make sure you know whether it’s you or the school who should agree the licence.

Next steps

  • Ask whether your business school provides copyright guidelines and templates you can use.
  • When writing a case, remember to check all materials in case you need permission.
  • Make sure you’re using authorised sources, to avoid disputes.
  • If someone approaches you requesting permission, check first whether that request should go straight to your school.
  • Ask whether your business school has run a Copyright Audit to clarify the copyrights they own or have licensed. It’s a great way to get a clear view of copyright assets and risks, and to set out realistic and practical next steps.

About the author

Clare PainterClare Painter helps organisations to manage copyright issues and digital licensing, especially where licence terms need to be both effective and practical.

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