By my nature I am highly collaborative, and believe that whatever knowledge and wisdom I have gained through life experience is a gift I’ve been given to share. However, I am also keenly aware that there are professional parameters that guide what we do with the information we learn.
When someone is kind enough to share wisdom or knowledge with me, I acknowledge that this information is theirs – as to have something of value to share usually takes a journey, and likely someone has had to work very hard (personally or professionally) to come to realizations that are helpful to others. Therefore, it is only right for me to ask if I can use the information they have shared, and to identify ways to honor their contribution – whether through financial reimbursement, formal citation, or simply by publicly recognizing who taught me this piece of information.
Of late I have been struck by the uncomfortable realization that my belief about intellectual ownership may not be shared by all. And, that unintentional (or intentional) acts of intellectual property “theft” pose a real risk for our industry. Supporting each other’s diverse experience and knowledge is a key factor to the growth and financial viability of this industry.
As such, it dawned on me that maybe writing a brief piece about the legalities and ethics of receiving and sharing information might be helpful.
What is Intellectual Property?
“The law of intellectual property is commonly understood as providing an incentive to authors and inventors to produce works for the benefit of the public by regulating the public’s use of such works in order to ensure that authors and inventors are compensated for their efforts” (Cornell Law School, 2019).
Patents, trademarks, copyrights, and unfair competition protections are the four types of intellectual property rights set in place to protect the hard work and financial investment inherent in developing concepts and publishing, or otherwise making public one’s intellectual endeavors.
A patent grants the “exclusive right to exclude others from making, using, importing, and selling the patented innovation for a limited period of time” (Cornell Law School, 2019).
A trademark grants federal protection for distinctive marks including “words, phrases, logos and symbols used by producers to identify their goods” (Cornell Law School, 2019). Even unregistered trademarks can be protected by common law if the user can demonstrate five years of continuous use.
Copyright law protects the writings, concepts, and expressive creations of authors. The reach of the copyright law has extended over the years to include architecture, software, graphic arts, motion pictures, sound recordings, and much more (Cornell Law School, 2019).
If someone has written a book, workbook, handbook, training curriculum, workshop description, blog post, or anything else that is original, copyright laws protect the rights of the author to this material. If someone else wishes to use the concepts or content presented, permission must be gained from the author, or the author must be credited or otherwise cited (see “fair use”).
“The law of unfair competition is primarily comprised of torts [a wrongful act or an infringement of a right] that cause economic injury to a business through a deceptive or wrongful business practice” (Cornell Law School, 2019).
Unfair competition “relates to the practice of endeavoring to substitute one’s own goods or products in the market for those of another for the purpose of deceiving [or misleading] the public (Kane, 2019).
Intellectual property rights are violated when people replicate and claim ownership over original concepts, content, designs, or inventions.
Ethical Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights
Just like laws govern intellectual property rights, so should professional ethics. As professionals, we have a responsibility to model ethical behaviors in our business practices, and also to push ourselves to grow personally. Here are some ideas and questions to ponder.
Each time I develop a workshop, training, or publication, I scour the internet to learn what others are doing, and I attempt to develop something that is original and unique to my education, training, research, and experience, and that supports the needs of the industry. I am careful not to duplicate someone else’s work, unless it happens that my publications and initial offerings pre-date their efforts.
Question: Is my concept, content, or design novel and unique to my own education, training, research, and experience?
Give Credit Where Credit is Due
If during my market research I find that my idea is not original, but I believe I have a new way to go about sharing my knowledge, or that I could contribute to the body of knowledge already established, I look for ways to include those who came before – potentially collaborating with them to learn more about their concepts and ideas, paying them for consultation time if that is needed, and certainly giving them public credit for what they have already done. Once I have done that, I aim to create an original offering that is different than what they have already done. Sometimes in this process I learn that I can’t create something different or better, and thus I determine whether a referral or collaboration is the best strategy to support the growth and wellbeing of the industry.
Question: Am I comfortable giving credit to other people for their accomplishments? How do I do this in daily life?
Publicly acknowledging collaboration helps to foster a greater sense of safety and trust in an industry. If the public gets the sense that competing businesses or professionals are actually working together to support each other’s diverse approaches and beliefs, consumers are less fearful and more engaged, which creates a more robust and financially viable industry.
If I discover people whose ideas I appreciate, I attempt to find ways to collaborate. This could include working together on a writing project, developing a training, or simply establishing a referral process between our two services.
Question: Am I collaborative? How do I seek to support diverse ideas and ways of thinking?
If I realize that someone has already written extensively about my topic, or is offering what I had in mind to offer, and assuming it is of high quality and meets my ethical and safety standards, I refer people to their book or training rather than creating the same or similar product. I also believe that I am NOT the expert of all things – and that what I have to offer might not be the best fit for all people all the time. Thus I look for ways to introduce people to diverse ideas and options, and to support their continuing inquiry and investigation.
If it happens that there is enough market demand for the additional resources, and I have the education, training, and experience to produce or provide a similar product as someone else, I attempt to collaborate with the person or people I would have referred to so as to create a united front rather than an industry of division.
Question: Do I refer out, attempting to expose people to as many new ideas or ways of doing things as possible, or do I hold tightly to those who come to me?
In a nutshell, if you attend a workshop or training, or read a book, research article, or other publication, and you learn something that gives you a new idea or influences your business practices, give credit where credit is due, look for opportunities to collaborate or refer, and by all means, don’t take ownership of something that someone else has worked very hard to develop or establish.
Our industry is only made richer (in all ways) by diversity. Attempting to be the “best” or the “only”, or to “be everything to everybody” and offer too much will only damage this industry. There is space for everyone, and thus there is no need to try and fill all of it – by doing so you will push out some of the best minds – those with great talent, those who are quiet, those who avoid conflict, those whose gifts may go unnoticed. When you give space, and make room, amazing things happen.
Cornell Law School (2019). Intellectual Property. Retrieved from: https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/intellectual_property
Kane, S. (2019). The Definition of Unfair Competition. Retrieved from: https://www.thebalancecareers.com/unfair-competition-2164416