What can you do if somebody uses your slides without your knowledge or permission? It’s a valid question, considering that PowerPoint files are regularly exchanged among designers, clients, prospects, coworkers, conference organizers, attendees, etc., etc., etc. At any point the files can be re-edited to look like they were designed by somebody else. What prevents most people from doing so are a strong moral compass, ethics, and the fact that in some cases it’s plagiarism, a fraudulent use of another person’s intellectual property for one’s own gain. It’s the wrong thing to do. Some people, however, have no qualms about ripping other people off. What recourse do you have when it happens to you?
Work for hire? Tough.
I have a friend; let’s call him Tim. Tim usually attends an annual industry trade show but didn’t go this year. Instead, he downloaded the PowerPoint files for the main presentations given by people in his company. One of these looked familiar. A little too familiar. Actually, he was essentially looking at his own presentation, tweaked a little bit to suit a different speaker. Tim was livid. He wanted to do something about it and asked for my advice, which was this: “Suck it up.”
The problem is that the presentation was created by Tim on company time as part of his regular job duties. This makes the presentation “work for hire,” which means that the intellectual property rights belong to Tim’s company, not Tim. So it was well within the speaker’s rights to use Tim’s presentation in the way that he did. What really smarted, though, was that the speaker never acknowledged that the content had been created by Tim and he never spoke with Tim about it at all, neither to ask permission nor to let him know it would be happening. A real jerk move, to be sure, but one with no recourse.
Aside from Tim’s hurt feelings and bruised ego, no real damage had been done. In fact, you could say that the company’s messaging was being reinforced. But that was cold comfort to poor Tim.
Original content? Good luck prosecuting.
Another friend of mine (let’s call this one Angela), has a story about the time somebody plagiarized her slides. One of her early public speaking gigs was at a conference. The organizers requested a copy of her presentation, which she provided. She was such a smash that she was invited back the next year. After her second presentation, she was approached by a member of the audience. “Angela, I gotta thank you,” he gushed. “I got your slides last year and I’ve been using them, you know, to spread your gospel. Thanks a lot!”
Like Tim, Angela was completely unaware of the use of her presentation until after the fact. But Angela’s situation is different from Tim’s because the man had ripped off her original content that she had created as part of her own business. What should she do about it? Could she sue the guy for stealing her intellectual property and passing it off as his own own? That depends on how much she wants to pay a lawyer to try the case and whether or not she can prove that harm has been done to her business. Sounds like an expensive slog to me. Could she create a smear campaign against the low-down, dirty dog who done her wrong? Sure, if she wants to risk a libel and/or slander suit. Probably the best course of action would be to politely but firmly insist that the man stop using her presentation. Not very Chuck Norris, I know, but there you go.
How to minimize your risk
Sadly, if you’re creating slides as part of your job duties, whatever you create is the property of your company. Although it would be nice if people asked your permission to use what you’ve made, they are under no obligation to do so.
But if you’re a solo professional or if your presentations are created on your own time, then they belong to you. You can minimize the risk of being ripped off in two ways:
- Don’t give anybody your slide files.
- If people insist on “getting your slides,” create PDF handouts. It won’t prevent people from lifting your content, but it makes it harder.
Bottom line, it stinks when you learn that your presentations are being given without your knowledge or consent. But unless you’re a huge business concern with a legion of grey-suited lawyers with a reputation and brand to maintain, if it happens to you you’re probably not going to be able to do much about it except to rise above and move onto your next great presentation.