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.Perhaps as far back as grammar school, you learned that a lower-case "c" with a circle around it - © - meant that what you were reading was not yours. You learned that if you wanted to use any material marked with that symbol, you owed the owner something - though you weren't sure exactly what.

All this time later, not a lot has changed - at least with respect to commercial use of Internet content.

Ask John Williams, VP of marketing at Punch Networks, makers of the WebGroups file collaboration and management service. He recently paid $1800 for hard copy reprints of an article in PC Magazine raving about his company's flagship product. Williams also excerpted the article on the Punch Networks web site and linked it to PC Magazine's Web site. Whoops! Abridging a review is a huge no-no in the world of online reprints.

Williams was informed of his violation by none other than a licensing agent from iCopyright, a Renton, Wash. service company who makes money by enforcing web copyright guidelines for publisher clients. According to Williams, iCopyright paid a visit to the Punch Networks web site to see if Punch was illegally displaying any PC Magazine content. It was. "To be fair to them, we were linking incorrectly," Williams admits.

But even after Williams made the appropriate changes in the hyperlink, he was informed by iCopyright that he was still in violation: the Punch web site still included a PC Magazine logo with the link to the PC Magazine Web page. When Williams inquired why he should pay for the logos when he has already paid $1800 for hard copy reprints, the agent informed him that hard copy and online reprints are completely unrelated.

What really frosted Williams was this: "Fundamentally, if I am going to send someone from my site to their site, why am I going to pay for that privilege?"

After speaking at length with the agent, Williams searched the ZDNet Web site for guidelines on linking, but couldn't find them. If, by chance, he had visited www.icopyright.com/zd, he would have found that a static link (a link without a logo) was his only option for free linking.) iCopyright.com devotes an entire FAQ page to the reuse of ZDNet content; good luck finding it on the ZDNet site itself. Even its director of licensing and business, Henry Goldstein, admits that reprint info on ZDNet "could be clearer." (Here's as close as we could come to finding the details on ZDNet.)

As they should and are obligated to do, web publishers such as ZDNet grapple with how to protect their content without detracting from what could be considered the biggest advantage of the Internet: its ability to offer free flow of information by way of hyperlinking to related sites, articles, and web pages. But protecting copyrighted material is not an issue of morals. It's a matter of money.

In August 1999, ZDNet hired iCopyright.com to review all online reprint requests and to grant all permissions for reuse of print and online content. As Goldstein explains, iCopyright manages "a very large number of things that a [small] number of people [at ZDNet] took care of." Before the partnership was established, ZDNet was unable to respond to requests for reprints as quickly or efficiently as they are now, Goldstein says.

Karen Jacobs, the director of reprint services at CMP, also admits that reprint policies are not published in full anywhere on the CMP site, though there are some policy descriptions at cmpreprints.com. (Unlike ZDNet, CMP's reprint department fulfills all hard copy prints and "eprints," without the aid of a company like iCopyright.com. That means that the same people fulfill both hard copy reprint requests and online reprint requests, so there is some coordination between the two realms. CMP considered hiring iCopyright, but decided against it due to what Jacobs phrased as - and without elaboration - iCopyright's "internal engineering problems".

Since the policies and procedures vary from company to company, and since it is difficult to find out what each companies' policies are, the misuse of copyrighted content seems inevitable, but ZDNet's Goldstein disagrees. "Whenever you get into rights and permissions, there are people that are unclear. I think that in general, the rules are quite clear. If it is protected material, then it is owned," Goldstein said.

"Most companies know that if they want to use any content, legally they have to license that," said Paula Tobol of iCopyright.com, adding that iCopyright.com is focused on general business users and PR agencies who "know exactly what they need [content] for."

Okay, so, in the extremely rare case that a businessperson misuses protected material, who finds out about it and who holds him or her accountable? The response to this question could shed some light on iCopyright's method of gaining revenue for companies like ZDNet. "We're not the police," Gold said. "If [a violation] was brought to our attention, we would probably call the publisher."

"If [ZDNet] reprints are used incorrectly, it is a legal issue. If we're made aware of that, we refer that to the [legal] department. It is not iCopyright's responsibility. They are to be our agent for granting rights and permissions," confirmed Goldstein.

Whether they use intermediaries such as iCopyright.com to do the job, or whether they keep the responsibility in-house, web publishers will do everything they can to collect every dollar they can. Ad banner revenue is plummeting. They have no other choice — so beware.

The MO at iCopyright.com

Here's how iCopyright.com works. Publishers like Ziff Davis Media provide iCopyright.com with copyrighted content available for immediate reuse or for production of professional reprints. The publishers determine the availability of the content (ie. whether it is available for Web, e-mail and/or print re-use), as well as any the price for such re-use.

Depending on the availability, the customers can choose the form in which they want the purchased content delivered - HTML code for a web page, a .PDF file for a desktop reprint, or a professional reprint from a copying company.

"Our reprint policies are essentially their reprint policies," says Steven Gold, director of product management and marketing at iCopyright.com, referring to publishing companies in general. Unfortunately, determining exactly what those policies are is not as easy as it seems.

"If people send requests in, we refer them to where we respond to all these issues on the site," said Henry Goldstein, ZDNet's director of licensing and business, adding that other publishing companies, at best, offer an email address for specific questions about reprint policies.

"For getting reprints, it's a fast and easy process compared to the old way which involved calling the publishers," Goldstein says, adding that iCopyright have successfully helped ZDNet to capitalize on its revenue stream from reprints by extending the company's brand and expanding the distribution of its copyrighted material.

© Sam Whitmore's Media Survey

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