Such was the case with the "pure Michigan" sing a long video made by Rob Bliss and his partners. Turns out the song to sing along to is copyrighted. Oops. All the hoopla about the video hit a sour note. As you may have read, the video had to be removed from YouTube because of this legal hiccup.
This is a good reminder of why PR people need to know the law. Libel, copyright, trademark, privacy and other laws could determine how or if a PR professional executes a campaign. In an era when it is easy to appropriate songs, text and other content on the internet and appropriate it for some organizational use, it's good to review the basics of copyright law:
- Protection of works is author's lifetime + 70 years. (This increased under Bill Clinton from 50 years).
- After that works are said to be in the public domain. So you can't use Sonny Bono songs without permission, but feel free to use Beethoven at will. (But, as I tell my students, you'll have to hurry because he's decomposing).
- Works do not need to be published to be protected. So, an unpublished dissertation could be copyrighted. Also, it's not just written works, it can be songs, images and even sculpture. (I actually had to make sure no images of a sculpture on loan were used once in my career).
- One does not need to register to be copyrighted. If you put the © symbol on it, it is copyrighted. The law presumes a creative work is protected from the moment it is created in some tangible form.
- Fair use means a portion may be used (the size relative to the total work must be small. E.g. 300 words of a 400 word poem is an infringement, 20 words is not.) The source must be attributed regardless, and any verbatim use must be in quotes.
So go ahead, try to get viral. But be careful you don't get infected by a festering legal situation.