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I run a website where I sell materials for students interested in finance, law and consulting. My website contains case studies from actual previous interviews. Recently, one of the firms' HR reached out regarding one of my case studies and asked me to take it down. The case study is just a word document and an accompanying excel file that contains no indication of confidentiality. They said that they were using the same case studies in recruiting until they found my website (note that candidates regularly come to my website to buy said material). They also said if I do not remove it they will refer to their legal department who will take action against me.

My question is, am I required by law to take the case studies down? What are the consequences if I do not? I am based in the U.S and the company is based in the UK with offices in the US and Asia.

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    Every work of a private person or entity is automatically copyrighted by operation of law. No registration or the like is necessary to give rise to a copyright.
    – ohwilleke
    Sep 22 at 19:57
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    what you do is sell things that were written by other people. That is copyright infringement.
    – Tiger Guy
    Sep 22 at 21:34
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    This question is missing details at multiple points, such as "what these interviews were and who conducted them" and "who are 'the firm' are are what is their relationship with the material?" Sep 23 at 2:37
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    IMO, you are getting treated with extreme pleasantness at this point. I've worked for companies where the first people to contact you would have been their lawyers, likely with a cease-and-desist order. Take advantage of this opportunity while you are still in a position to do so. This could snowball real quick, especially if they decide to contact any/all of the other copyright holders of the material you're selling and let them know what's going on as well. Take down anything that is not yours to distribute. Immediately. Some of the stuff may be available under license. Check for that.
    – ouflak
    Sep 23 at 6:30
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    IANAL but it sounds like you seriously need to hire a lawyer immediately if you intend to continue in this line of business.
    – bob
    Sep 23 at 16:55

3 Answers 3

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Given the clarification provided in the comments to the question, the company has a copyright in the material and as such is legally entitled to demand that you cease using it.

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  • "Fraudulent/Illegal distribution of [company's] confidential and proprietary information" does not sound like a copyright claim.
    – User65535
    Sep 24 at 17:14
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    @User65535 The confidential or proprietary character of the information is irrelevant in this case. If the company owns the copyright to the work it can lawfully demand that one cease using it, even if it is mistaken in the reason that it is entitled to do so.
    – ohwilleke
    Sep 24 at 19:20
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    On top of copyright, it's possible they also have a trade secret interest in the materials. If those materials are used in job interviews, it is not unheard of for candidates to sign an NDA. But copyright offers huge statutory damages and is much harder to (accidentally) abrogate, so copyright is by far the more relevant legal interest here.
    – Kevin
    Sep 25 at 7:27
  • @Kevin also, from how I understand the situation the documents were leaked to him by other people (either directly or indirectly). The people who leaked the documents may violating an NDA they signed, but in that situation OP wouldn't be.
    – marcelm
    Sep 25 at 20:47
  • @marcelm: Under the fact pattern you describe, the feds could bust you for 18 USC 1832(a)(2-3), but I imagine they have better crimes to prosecute.
    – Kevin
    Sep 25 at 21:23
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Is releasing this company's documents illegal?

Yes.

I run a website where I sell materials for students interested in finance, law and consulting. My website contains case studies from actual previous interviews. [from comments: I sell the literal documents that the company gives candidates who are interviewing.]

Those documents are (presumably) written by those companies. They automatically own the copyright to those documents. Copyright law forbids distribution of copyrighted works, unless you are the copyright holder, or have a license to do so.

Neither applies to you, so your distribution of these documents is illegal under copyright law. Since you are selling these documents your infringement is of a commercial nature. That makes things worse for you, since it's harder to claim you were unaware the works were copyrighted, and the sentence may be more severe.

Recently, one of the firms' HR reached out regarding one of my case studies and asked me to take it down.

So take it down, and apologize profusely.

The case study is just a word document and an accompanying excel file that contains no indication of confidentiality.

Irrelevant for a copyright claim.

[from comments] They do own the case study but I don't know that they copyrighted it.

Irrelevant. Copyright is granted automatically; they don't need to tell you. You are required to know the law, and will be prosecuted as such.

My question is, am I required by law to take the case studies down?

Yes.

What are the consequences if I do not?

They can sue you for copyright infringement. I'm willing to bet money on them winning that case. If they do win, you will likely be ordered by the court to stop distributing the materials, and to pay (punitive) damages to the prosecutor.

Edit: I just got an email from Kirkland and Ellis on behalf of their client with a letter titled "Cease and Desist - Fraudulent/Illegal distribution of [company's] confidential and proprietary information". I immediately took the materials off the website. A few questions on next steps:

Am I in the clear now?

No, they can still sue. You took them down now, but what you did was still illegal.

Hence my advice to apologize to them profusely, to hopefully dissuade them from pursuing legal actions.

Can I get a lawyer and try to fight this (i.e Kirkland's charge against me)?

Yes. You can get a lawyer for pretty much anything.

You shouldn't, because you'll lose and make things worse for you.

Should I take other companies' materials down as well?

Yes.

What happens if I don't?

They can sue, and likely win.

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  • Thanks for the info. If they do sue, would the damages be equal to what I made from selling the documents (a few hundred dollars)? Sep 25 at 15:37
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    That’s probably better asked of a lawyer that you pay to answer the question. My guess as a non-lawyer is no it won’t since you can infringe copyright without making any money. And I think in general damages are based on what the harm to the injured party, not on how much you benefited from harming them. I could imagine them being easily in the thousands or tens of thousands or more but again IANAL and I seriously think you need to hire one today.
    – bob
    Sep 25 at 17:46
  • This site lists monetary penalties up to a quarter million dollars: justice.gov/archives/jm/…. No idea how a court would value the worth of the copyrighted material infringed in your case, and I don’t think I’d try to guess if I were you. I’d get a lawyer.
    – bob
    Sep 25 at 17:48
  • I'll note that wilfull infringement has much stiffer penalties. Using copyrighten materials after being told to stop may be sufficient (but not necessary) to proof the infringement was willful.
    – Brian
    Sep 26 at 17:51
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You're not required by law to take anything down until the court orders you to do so. Their legal department will probably write you a letter detailing the legal theory behind their demand, at which point your attorney can advise you as to your best course of action. There are about 3 bases that could be cooked up in their lawsuit. One is "disclosure of trade secrets", which seems highly unlikely. Another is breach of contract: you were not aware that your access to the document was contingent on non-disclosure. We have no idea how you got the document(s). Suppose that you cruised a website and saw some interesting material, then copied it. If you created an account to get access to the material, there was probably an "agreement" part that you could have glossed over, which contains the confidentiality clause.

The third is copyright infringement: they created it, you took it and exploited it. You infringed their copyright and can be sued. There is no requirement that protected material be labeled "Protected by copyright", you are expected to know that everything is protected by copyright, and you need permission from the copyright owner to copy and especially commercially re-distribute the material.

Under the circumstances, the prudent course of action would be to hire an attorney, which will listen to the specific details of the situation and tell you how deep and hot the water is that you are in.

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    @Questioner5453 - so if you receive stolen goods, they are yours since you didn't steal them?
    – Jon Custer
    Sep 22 at 16:27
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    You are not bound by the confidentiality clause in a third party's contract (privity of contract), but copyright protection doesn't depend on a confidentiality agreement.
    – user6726
    Sep 22 at 16:42
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    In the US, this comes from Title 17 of the US code. Basically, every written thing is protected by copyright, with some marginal exceptions about "US government works". Copyright expires a lifetime after the author dies. You should get your own lawyer on this first. If he says "give in and apologize", that means you stand to lose big bucks if you annoy them and they sue you.
    – user6726
    Sep 22 at 19:13
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    The first sentence of this answer is incorrect. You are required to take it down upon request of the copyright owner, which is why a court will order you to do so, and possibly award damages, if you try to contest it.
    – prl
    Sep 23 at 1:53
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    You are not required to take it down, but continuing to distribute copyrighted materials after the copyright owner has told you to stop considerably worsens your position. You can now no longer claim innocent infringement.
    – Mark
    Sep 23 at 2:51

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