by Michael C. Lowe | October 01, 2012

Terrence CanelaSocial media has vast and fast-growing potential in the meetings world, but planners should proceed with a healthy dose of caution -- and some good legal advice. The very nature of sharing online messages, images and videos can lead to serious problems, says Terrence Canela, Esq., associate general counsel to the American Institute of Architects. "They're fixed, fast and unforgiving. Once you post it, it's just out there where millions of people can see it immediately."

Following are common pitfalls for planners and how to avoid them.

Copyright/Trademark Infringement Copyright laws protect original works of authorship, which include everything from pictures to videos to text. For planners, this issue surfaces most often in marketing materials. "There's such an eagerness to market a conference or event that planners are quick to grab photos or other materials off the Internet from anywhere and everywhere, and use them without understanding the laws and permissions," says Barbara Dunn, St. Louis-based attorney and partner with Howe & Hutton Ltd. Violations typically arise from downloading a photo of an exhibitor's booth or the headshot of a speaker from a website and plugging it into a brochure or posting it on a conference's Facebook page without first receiving permission from the source.

Social media sites like the photo management and sharing application Flickr exacerbate the matter by allowing millions of users to easily upload images (six billion had been uploaded by August 2011), which enables other users to find and download those photos with a few clicks of the mouse, without realizing they might be infringing on copyright laws. Meanwhile, distributing copyrighted content via social networks, where posts can be viewed by millions in an instant, increases the chance of that material being seen and potentially reported to the copyright owner. "This new method of communication has made violations more visible to a broader audience," says Dunn.

The ramifications of copyright infringement vary. "The worst that could happen is that the organization could be held liable, and a client could sue for damages," notes Dunn. Planners who use copyrighted matter in printed materials also run the risk of having to trash bins of costly brochures should they receive a notice to cease and desist (which happened to one of Dunn's clients).

Obviously, it's important for planners to determine who owns the rights to any image, video or text they plan to reuse. "You can't assume anything is there to appropriate for free unless it explicitly states that," says Canela. Look for existing copyright information or credits right at the source, and make a formal request to the copyright owner or author to reproduce the desired item(s).

A safe option is to seek out copyright-free materials. One excellent resource is Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization that allows the sharing and use of literally millions of images, songs and videos at no charge. (For details, see "Image Finder" at left).

Much like copyright violations, trademark infringement commonly occurs when a planner uses a logo, name or graphic that is trademarked by an organization, without that organization's consent. Just the simple act of using a logo in a blog post or tweet can be asking for legal trouble.

"When planners negotiate contracts with sponsors and exhibitors, they should get permission up front and in writing to use trademarked images and logos," advises Dunn, who notes that such images often must be used in a certain format, color or size, since the organizations behind them are "legally responsible for making sure their trademark is used consistently."