It's a fact that many employers are just now coming to realize: Hip-hopping employees downloading tunes from the Internet can expose your organization to legal problems, not to mention sapping your computer resources, opening your system to viruses and dragging down productivity.
If just one employee downloads songs, movies, video games or other software onto your computer system without permission, that constitutes copyright infringement. And when workers swap music files with other employees or friends over the Internet, the legal risks multiply.
Music industry targets employers
The latest crackdown: In late January, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) filed suit against 532 people, accusing them of large-scale copyright infringement for illegally downloading and trading music online. That represents the RIAA's third round of lawsuits against suspected file-sharers (and its largest number of suits yet) since its crackdown began last summer. While downloading isn't dead, the lawsuits have slowed it down.
Also, the FBI's cyberdivision just announced it would step up efforts to shut down digital piracy. It released a new "education letter" meant to inform the public and businesses about the risks of exchanging files online. In the future, the FBI will place a new anti-piracy seal on copyrighted materials as a warning.
Meanwhile, the piracy battle is being waged in the workplace, too.
Last year, the RIAA and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) sent notices to Fortune 1000 companies, asking them to curb employee music pirating and warning of potential legal liabilities if their workers illegally traded music on corporate computers.
The threat: Musicians can collect up to $150,000 for each song copied without permission, plus legal fees. Computers and equipment used to make illegal copies can be confiscated.
In one case, an Arizona tech firm paid a $1 million settlement after employees were found to be distributing thousands of music files on the company's server.
Companies open themselves to liability if they know about music piracy on their systems but do nothing about it, or if they stand to gain financially from the illegal downloads, say employment and technology law attorneys. It's still unclear how much policing an employer must do to protect itself.
4 steps to erasing your risk
Here are four ways you cut your vulnerability to legal attacks over this issue:
1. Draft a policy against copyright theft. Include a section in your e-mail and Internet policy that bans copyright abuse in the workplace, including downloading music and movies, as well as copying and uploading copyrighted material to the Internet to share without the owners' permission. Define thefor such actions.
For a sample policy and sample memo to employees about illegal downloads, see the RIAA's Corporate Policy Guide to Copyright Use and Security on the Internet at www.mpaa.org/Anti-piracy/press/2003/2003_02_13.pdf.
2. Audit your system for unauthorized copyrighted material. Regularly check your network and desktop machines for unlicensed software and illegally downloaded movies and music. The RIAA says music files are usually stored on computers in .mp3, .wma or .wav format. A typical compressed recording takes up 3 to 5 megabytes and is often found in a my music or shared directory.
Several vendors offer corporate networkservices to audit and protect your network from unauthorized material. To find such services, go to www.copyrightassembly. org, www.mpaa.org, www.musicunited. org or www.riaa.com.
3. Delete all unauthorized copies of copyrighted material. Unless a worker can produce a license or subscription agreement from a legitimate movie or music service, assume that copies of music or movies on your computers are illegal. If your policy bans such downloads, take the appropriate progressive discipline detailed in the policy.
4. Take security steps to monitor or block future downloads. Among your options: include firewall configurations that screen out such files; use port-scanning software to detect employee attempts to use peer-to-peer file transfer services; use automatic audit software that maintains a rolling inventory of applications and files installed on networked computers. Among the software options that can help you monitor or block music downloads: www.securecomputing.com, www.mimesweeper.com and www.websense.com.
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