Protect Your Report from Wrongful Distribution

Sponsors of external surveys wish the whole world would clamor for their report and find it easily. The report is a marketing tool and the wider the dissemination the better. “Feel free to forward this report to your colleagues and peers!” They want to harvest emails and phone numbers from a multitude of folks who might want their services.

By contrast, reports based on surveys on compensation or proprietary information like total legal spending are intended only for the companies and firms that gave data. The sponsor does not want its report made available to anyone by forwarded emails or for free on the internet. “Please do not share this report with anyone!”

But how does a sponsor protect its value and intellectual property once it lets loose a PDF of the report? Drawing on my experience with survey projects for law firms and law departments, a handful of measures reduce the risks of proliferation:

• Request protection, with an explanation: When you email your hard-earned report, you can emphatically ask recipients not to distribute it to anyone (or not outside their organization) without your express written permission (meaning, you say OK to a specified pass on). You make clear that only respondents are entitled to the report.

• Copyright warnings: A fundamental prophylactic results from marking each page of your report with a copyright symbol and an injunction against reproduction or distribution. The little © and what follows will not stop someone from improperly sharing your intellectual property, but it may give them pause and will preserve your rights against them.

• Software identification: You can license software that sends reports only to authorized email addresses and conspicuously patterns the report with notices: “Report only for Rees Morrison” or similar language. For example, SHAREit lets you transfer files with hard coded passwords. Then, if an unscrupulous or careless recipient violates your explicit or implicit limitations on distribution, the person they send the report to sees the mark of Cain.

• Watermarks: With special extensions to software (e.g., Adobe Acrobat) or free online services (e.g., Sejda), you can embed on each page of your PDF report a warning against distribution. That admonition alerts every reader to keep the report for their eyes only. Yes, software that is available for free on the internet can remove pages of PDFs, but that takes careful effort, which discourages malicious or sloppy dispersals.

• Customized: With sufficient coding, it is possible to name each recipient in his or her report. “This report is only for Rees Morrison” might be emblazoned on the title page and elsewhere. It can be done, but if your report goes to scores or hundreds of recipients, the extra steps are logistically difficult.

• Password protection: At no cost (or with licensed software) you can encrypt your PDF report. The person who wants to unlock it must know the password. To implement this level of protection against undesirable spread, you have to deal with the hassle of sending the password, however, and the inevitable hiccups.

• Hardcopy: Borrowing from the 20th century, you might mail the report. That retro step clobbers the sponsor with delays, rigidity, and cost. True, the recipient can scan it and scatter it to the internet winds, but that means they deliberately do what they should be aware is wrong, rather than abuse the casualness of forwarding an email with an attachment.

No steps are foolproof. The strongest approach to protecting your survey report’s value is to take precautions, while continually innovating and providing a quality survey and report time after time.