by Jonathan T. Howe, Esq. | August 01, 2008

Perhaps there’s truth to the adage that it is easier to seek forgiveness than it is to seek permission. For meeting planners, however, that’s a good way to invite a lawsuit. Planners always should seek permission first before using another person’s ideas, images and even likenesses.

Federal copyright laws protect creativity and originality by stating that anything that is original to the creator, if it exists in a form that can be copied, is automatically copyrighted. No formalities are necessary. However, submitting a copyright registration to the Library of Congress does provide substantially more protection.

Not to be overlooked are state laws. New York, for example, protects the privacy of individuals from “exploitation for commercial purposes.” In New York, then, the use of a person’s biographical information, picture or likeness in promoting an event could be considered “commercial exploitation.”


Meeting professionals always should be sure that relationships with speakers, authors, photographers and anyone else who will make an oral or visual presentation are governed by a contract. This includes those who might be providing services at no charge.

That agreement should set forth the right of the organization to use specific creative assets, images and biographical information of the provider. In addition, it should outline clearly how those materials will be presented and preserved. For example, if a speaker does not want to be recorded in any way, you must honor that.

By the same token, should you intend to record meeting content for additional use, make sure the agreement allows you to do so. You might think paying the speaker automatically gives you that right. It doesn’t.

Picture Perfect

Photography is a creative endeavor, and unless your contract authorizes you to use the photos, copyright law says the images belong to the person clicking the shutter.

You’ll also need to obtain permission, in a sense, from those who might be photographed. That’s not as difficult as it sounds: The courts have recognized prominent notices stating that the presence of people at a given location constitutes an implicit right to use their image. For example, a major amusement park informs those going through the turnstile that pictures and videos will be taken throughout the park and can be used for any purpose. Similarly, planners can note in pre-meeting materials, agendas and program information that attendance constitutes permission to use images of those at the event.

Future Rights

When engaging the services of a professional, the “work for hire” doctrine might come into play. That is, when you pay someone to do a specific task, it is sometimes presumed that you are the “owner” for whatever limited purpose you are paying the fee. It is better, however, to have it clearly spelled out that you have an unfettered right to use the materials, whether photographs, images, speeches or other information produced, as your property.

Work in Progress

If, during the course of your meeting, you are relying upon individuals to create something -- such as developing standards of some sort, writing a paper or participating in a group activity that might result in a tangible creative asset -- make sure they, too, have agreed that all materials are owned by the organization and may be used without further compensation.

In all cases, it’s better that planners don’t need to seek forgiveness, because forgiveness can be very expensive.

Jonathan T. Howe, Esq.,is a senior partner in the Chicago, St. Louis and Washington, D.C., law firm of Howe & Hutton Ltd., which specializes in meetings, travel and hospitality law. Legal questions can be e-mailed to him at