But it seems not everyone got the memo.
For example, a hunger relief charity in Kalamazoo, Michigan, launched an online fundraising drive to build a library named in honor of actor LeVar Burton. The website included the actor’s name and image, along with the library’s logo. Problem is, Burton didn’t know anything about it—and he wasn’t impressed when he found out.
Now the charity is dealing with negative press on a national scale, the potential for legal action by Burton, and an investigation by the Michigan Attorney General.
If anyone deserves to have his name on a library, it’s LeVar Burton. A champion of child literacy, Burton hosted the PBS-TV series Reading Rainbow for 23 years. (On the off-chance you missed that award-winning show, you might know him as Lt. Commander Geordi LaForge on Star Trek: The Next Generation, or from his breakthrough role as Kunta Kinte in the 1977 mini-series, Roots.)
That, of course, isn’t the issue.
The charity’s founder insists that while planning the library, he reached out to Burton “numerous times” asking for his endorsement, but the actor never responded. And so the nonprofit apparently embraced that old Latin proverb, “Qui tacet consentire videtur”—in short, "silence gives consent."
For the record, that’s not how any of this works.
Using someone’s name without permission to solicit money is an obvious no-no. But communicators would do well to recognize another teachable moment here and ask themselves a hard question: How often do we appropriate someone else’s materials for our own use?
The internet makes puts an enormous amount of intellectual property literally at our fingertips. It’s easy to convince ourselves that it’s okay to use—and if someone objects, well, it’s simpler to ask forgiveness than to ask permission.
Again, that’s not how any of this works. Good intentions (like starting a library in someone’s name) don’t make it right. Neither does ease of access. Content creators bring talent and expertise to their work, and they deserve to be paid when their stuff is used.
Even an honest mistake is still a mistake. Last year I found myself paying a modest-yet-painful, settlement after using three news images to go along with related blogs. While I still believe I used the photos appropriately under fair use—and there’s evidence to suggest my experience was essentially “legal extortion”—I chose not to fight it. Even if I was right, I felt they had a point. Someone else created those images and deserved both credit and compensation for their use. When I sent the check, I added an apology.
I often talk about how PR should serve as the conscience of the organizations we serve. That’s a tremendous responsibility, one that’s vital today more than ever. It means asking the tough questions, even when the organization doesn’t want to hear them. It means checking on our own behavior, making sure it’s ethically above board at all times. It means owning our mistakes when we make them, learning the lesson and doing better.
Let’s make sure the lesson from the Burton library brouhaha sinks in for all of us.