Depending upon your business model, white papers can play an important role in business growth. You might use them to publish trends in the industry or to convey information to other businesses, and if someone else steals the information in your white paper, your time and expense could be wasted. White papers are generally eligible for copyright protection, as long as they meet certain minimum standards.
Creative works fixed in some tangible form are eligible for copyright protection, and white papers are considered creative works. If your white paper is lifted from someone else's work, however, it won't be eligible and could even be a form of copyright infringement. To own the rights to your white paper, you'll need to either be its creator or to have purchased or received rights to the paper from its creator. Some businesses, for example, have agreements with their employees that all white papers and similar works created as a business employee are automatically the business's intellectual property.
Although another person can't steal your white paper, the doctrine of Fair Use does allow some limited exceptions for scholarly, educational and parody purposes. Other people can excerpt small portions of your white paper -- credited to you -- to write reviews, cite your research or create satire of your work. The law isn't specific about how much they can excerpt, but it's quite clear that they can't lift the paper in its entirety.
Under U.S. copyright laws, copyright holders no longer have to register their works or publish a copyright symbol alongside the work to be eligible for copyright protection. Registration, however, creates a public record that you own the work. This can serve as a deterrent to copyright thieves, and federal law does require that you register the rights to your work prior to suing copyright thieves.
When the copyrights to your white paper expire, the paper will enter the public domain, which means people can use it for virtually any purpose. In most cases, copyrights expire 70 years after the death of the author for items created after 1978. Anonymous works and unpublished works, however, expire 120 years after the date they are created. Consequently, it's a wise idea to put a publication or creation year on each white paper your business creates.
Preventing Copyright Theft
If someone steals your white paper, you have several options. You can send the copyright thief a cease-and-desist letter. If this doesn't deter them, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act authorizes Internet service providers to remove infringing material from the web. If the white paper has been republished online, send a notice to the copyright thief's Internet Service Provider (ISP) requesting that the item be removed immediately. You can also sue in federal court for financial damages and, in some rare cases, copyright thieves can even be criminally prosecuted.
Van Thompson is an attorney and writer. A former martial arts instructor, he holds bachelor's degrees in music and computer science from Westchester University, and a juris doctor from Georgia State University. He is the recipient of numerous writing awards, including a 2009 CALI Legal Writing Award.