The Copyright Licensing Agency has been slammed for inducing employees to blow the whistle on firms illegally photocopying or scanning published material.
Copywatch, the copyright compliance arm of the CLA, which represents many authors and publishers, is offering rewards of up to £100,000 to staff who shop their employers.
A CLA licence is generally required for any routine copying in the workplace from books, journals or periodicals, either by photocopying or by making digital scans. The organisation is seeking to clamp down on businesses and local authorities who do not have a licence.
Those who infringe copyright may face a claim for damages or prosecution.
Vanda Laming, a solicitor and intellectual property expert at Birmingham law firm Mills & Reeve, says the approach taken by the CLA seems to be "over the top".
She said: "There is a real risk that employees, out of ignorance or greed, will report their employers, even if the employer is not infringing copyright.
"The Copywatch website lays undue emphasis on the monetary reward while providing no information on what constitutes copyright infringement. It also seems misleading in that the £100,000 reward is likely to be quite exceptional. All rewards are at the discretion of the CLA and dependent on the case leading to a successful licensing outcome or legal action."
The cost of a licence varies according to the number of employees. For example, a company employing more than 51 work-ers can pay £10.90 to £32.69 per professional employee, per annum.
According to Ms Laming many businesses are confused over whether they need a licence at all, or whether it should be from the CLA.
She said: "Businesses should not make infringing copies of copyright works. However, the CLA licence by no means covers all publications, nor is all copying necessarily an infringement of copyright. Companies should take independent advice before being railroaded into taking a licence."
Newspapers, for example, are covered by the Newspaper Licensing Agency rather than the CLA, which adds to the confusion for employers and their staff.
Ms Laming says companies should be concerned about unlawful copying, and advises that the first step is to have a clear policy on what is and what is not permitted, and to encourage employees to report any instances of what appear to be copying infringement to a designated person in the company. This is in line with the statutory protection offered to employees who blow the whistle under the Public Interest Disclosure Act, which generally requires employees to first report the issue to their employer.
"This aggressive approach of reporting to an external body, which has been used in other fields, does not promote respect for intellectual property rights, and is more likely to breed resentment, acrimony and mistrust," Ms Laming added.
The CLA has not, as yet, taken any businesses to court.
Ms Laming said: "No trial has been reported involving a CLA claim. If there has been no trial, this may be because many businesses do not want the publicity or expense, which would be out of all proportion to the CLA licence fees."