Taking someone’s work and using it without their permission is copyright infringement. But what is copyright infringement, what are examples of copyright infringement and how can you avoid breaking the law.
Here is a closer look at copyright infringement, how to protect yourself and answers to frequently asked questions.
Copyright infringement is a violation of someone else’s intellectual property (IP). It’s a legal term for the piracy or theft of the work created by someone else, especially when the one who stole the work gains financial rewards instead of the creator of the original material.
Copyright infringement applies to a wide range of created output, Songs, video, movies, books, articles, computer program code, paintings, illustrations, characters, ideas, poems, choreography and other intellectual works are all covered by copyright laws designed to protect the creators of the work itself.
Those who illegal use another’s work can be sued and held liable for copyright infringement. Those found responsible of copyright infractions can face hefty fines or imprisonment for violating copyright statutes.
Copyright law is a complex area of jurisprudence that covers a broad array of issues. Understanding the basics of copyright infringement can help protect you, even when you believe you are “just borrowing” someone else’s work.
What Is the Purpose of Copyright?
Copyrights provide protection for those who create unique works. From movies to music (two of the most common forms of entertainment that are often the subject of copyright complaints), copyright law is intended to protect creators and potential profits from their creators.
Copyright law gives creators the exclusive use of copyrighted materials for a set length of time. It protects the rights of copyright holders from being breached by a third party.
Individuals, groups and even corporations apply for copyrights so that they may use their works to make money. Other individuals can legally use those items if they come to an agreement with the copyright holders, typically through licensing agreements or outright purchases of the copyright.
For example, if a t-shirt company wants to use a picture of Luke Skywalker from Star Wars on its product, it cannot just pull an image off of the internet. It needs to approach the holders of that copyright and get permission to do so. Licensing agreements typically pay the copyright holder a fee, either a flat rate or a percentage of sales or profits, in return for the right to use the images, likenesses, sounds, code or other work.
How Are Copyrights Granted?
In the United States, Creators can apply for a copyright from the U.S. Copyright Office, which will assess and application and make a determination as to whether a copyright should be granted.
The Copyright Office defines a copyright as “a type of intellectual property that protects original works of authorship as soon as an author fixes the work in a tangible form of expression.”
There are a lot of terms when it comes to copyright law, including:
- Original Works. Original works are created by a human and have at least a moderate level of creativity. To be an independent creation, the work needs to have been made yourself, without copying from others.
- Fixed Works. Works are fixed when they are captured by the author in some form of a permanent medium so that a work can be perceived, reproduced or communicated for more than a brief moment. Recording or writing down work are forms of fixing it
- Author. The author is the creator of the original expression of work. The author owns the copyright unless they choose to assign it to another person or entity, such as a publisher
- Deposit. When applying for a copyright, an author sends a deposit, which is one copy (if published) or two copies (if unpublished) of the work, along with a fee. Deposited items become the property of the Library of Congress
- Publication. Under copyright law, publication has a specific definition. A publication is the distribution of copies or recordings of a work to the public with the intent to sell or otherwise transfer ownership, such as through rental, lease or lending. Public performances or displays of a work do not, in themselves, constitute publication
- Copyright Notice. A copyright notice is language placed on copies of the work that notify the world of the copyright. It usually includes a symbol — © — or the word “copyright” followed by the name of the owner and the year of first publication
- Copyright Infringement. According to the Copyright Office, “As a general matter, copyright infringement occurs when a copyrighted work is reproduced, distributed, performed, publicly displayed, or made into a derivative work without the permission of the copyright owner.”
What Can Be Covered By Copyright?
Copyright is meant to protect creative expression. Among items covered by copyright are those that fall into the following categories:
- Literary works, such as blog posts, books, poems and articles
- Musical works, including any accompanying words, such as songs and musicals
- Dramatic works, including any accompanying music, such as plays
- Pantomimes and choreographic works
- Pictorial, graphic and sculptural works, including paintings and photographs
- Motion pictures and other audiovisual works, including movies and television shows
- Sound recordings
- Architectural plans, drawings and actual buildings
- Computer programs
Not everything that is created is covered by copyright. The Copyright Office also identifies those works that are not subject to copyright. They include:
- Short phrases and slogans
- Familiar symbols or designs
- Mere variations of typographic ornamentation
- Lettering or coloring
- Simple listings of ingredients or contents
Copyright is not intended to protect broader elements. Among the things copyright does not protect are:
Famous Copyright Infringement Cases
Over time, there have been many notable cases of copyright infringement. Here are a few examples.
Apple vs. Microsoft
The graphical user interface (GUI) is what allows us to use computers easily by clicking on programs, seeing copy we write show up on the page and easily navigate through applications. In this famous case, the tech giants battled over who invented GUI.
Apple had initially licensed its GUI to use in Windows 1.0. However, for Windows 2.0, Microsoft added some features that had existed in Apple’s Macintosh product. Apple sued, claiming that the look and feel of the Microsoft product, from rectangular windows and overlapping windows to the ability to resize windows, collectively were protected by the Macintosh copyright. The courts sided with Microsoft.
A&M Records vs. Napster
In the late 1990s, Napster took the world by storm. It was a peer-to-peer sharing network that allowed uses to share mp3 recordings across the internet. Many record companies filed suit against Napster, claiming the sharing platform allowed for the free large-scale distribution of their music and sued Napster for copyright infringement. The record companies claimed that Napster was making money off of their property and did little to prevent the sharing of copyrighted content. The courts ruled against the company, which eventually shut down in large part due to the ruling.
Dyson vs. Hoover
It may be surprising that two vacuum companies would be involved in a copyright infringement case, but that’s what happened when James Dyson took Hoover to court in the United Kingdom. Dyson was the inventor of the bagless vacuum, using two cyclones, one to collect small particles and the other to suck up larger items. Dyson claimed that Hoover, which had shunned his ideas when he brought them to the company, turned around and produced a machine similar to his own. The courts ruled in Dyson’s favor, claiming Hoover had infringed on Dyson’s patent.
Marvin Gaye Estate vs. Robin Thicke
The estate of Gaye, the famed R&B singer, sued Robin Thicke, Pharrell and T.I. over parts of their hit song, Blurred Lines, which were similar to parts of Gaye’s 1977 song, Gotta Give It Up. The initial ruling of $7.3 million that Thick et al had to pay was, at the time, the largest payout for music copyright infringement, though the amount was later reduced to $5.3 million.
Star Wars vs. Battlestar Galactica
Several years after the release of Star Wars, Universal Studios was poised to release its own sci-fi creation. But 20th Century Fox sued its rival studio, claiming it had borrowed 34 ideas from Star Wars. Galactica creator Glen Larson agreed to some changes in the planned television series but Universal countersued, claiming Star Wars had borrowed from older science fiction creations. By the time the courts ruled in Battlestar Galactica’s favor, the series was off the air.
Frequently Asked Questions
Copyright law has changed over time, which means copyright protection varies based on when the work was published. For works created on or after January 1, 1978, the following applies:
– For one author, the copyright is protected for the life of the author plus 70 years
– For joint authors, the life of the surviving author plus 70 years
– For works made for hire, or for anonymous of pseudonymous works, it’s 95 years from first publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is less
For works produced before 1978 various rules apply but the copyright is generally good for 28 years from the date of publication.
This question can be difficult to answer. Copying an entire work is clearly an infringement, in most cases, but only copying a small amount can also be a violation if it’s a substantive portion of the work itself.
Be careful about falling for the 30 percent rule, which is a myth that claims you can use 30 percent of a published work without being subject to infringement laws. It’s simply not true.
This is where the concept of “fair use” comes into play. Under this guideline, users may use copyrighted material for certain purposes without infringing on a copyright. Fair use cases generally include:
– Criticism and Commentary. Quoting from a work for a review is usually fair use, such as copying passage from a book or a clip from a song or movie
– News Reporting. Journalism is generally protected if it uses brief quotations or, for example, quoting part of a politician’s speech
– Scholarship. Summarizing an address or article, with brief quotations, in a news report constitutes fair use. A journalist would be permitted to quote from a political speech’s text without the politician’s permission
– Research and scholarship. When doing research or completing a scholarly, technical or scientific piece, it is permissible to use a portion of another work for clarity or to underscore an author’s point
– Nonprofit Educational Work. Teachers and faculty members can use limited portions of written work in the classroom. While instructors could copy a few pages of a book, they may not copy the entire book
– Parody. Imitating or ridiculing another work in a comedic way is generally allowable
A copyright infringement case carries with it steep penalties. Courts may issue a temporary or permanent injunction against use of the copyrighted works and impound or dispose of all copies and recordings of fraudulent materials. Damages up to $150,000 per case can be issued and the guilty party can also be required to pay court and attorney fees. The infringer could also be sentenced to jail time.
You should take copyright infringement notices seriously. Social media accounts may close your account if you violate their terms and conditions repeatedly. It’s important you learn about copyright law and abide by the laws.
It’s important that you do not ignore a copyright infringement notice. You also should not panic. Read the notice carefully. In minor cases, the copyright holder may simply ask you to cease and desist from using the copyrighted material.
You should not, however, contact the copyright holder or their attorney. Instead, consult with an attorney if appropriate and send a response that outlines the following:
– What the claim is against you
– The validity of that claim
– Any defenses you may have for the claim
– A statement that you have removed the copyrighted items from a website, blog post, or wherever it is being used
– Suggested next steps, such as sending a licensing fee, sending a settlement amount or simply agreeing to cease using the material
There is no definitive cost to a copyright infringement lawsuit. But the total cost may include your attorney’s fees, any penalties you may incur and the risk of paying the complainant’s attorney fees and court costs. There’s also the added time it takes to defend a suit, prepare and appear in court.
The simplest answer when it comes to t-shirts and copyright is – don’t. Don’t use any characters, images or figures from movies, television shows, video games, comic books or novels. Do not use the likenesses of athletics or the logos of pro or amateur teams, leagues or schools. Don’t use artists’ images, their song lyrics, album covers or tour names.
Also be careful about using memes you see on the internet or images from viral videos. These too may be protected by copyrights.
Instead, use royalty-free images.
Art is covered by copyright law, but copyright is difficult for artists. Art itself is very subjective. Artists are frequently influenced by other artists or works, create using similar techniques, and seek to honor, imitate or create works that are an homage to other work or artists.
Copyright owners need to show that an infringer had access to the holder’s work and that there are enough elements that are sufficiently similar. Often, proving this latter element makes it a highly subjective matter.
Again, this is a difficult question to answer. Statutory damages, according to one source, typically range from $750 to $30,000 and are usually based on the number of copyrighted works infringed upon. Settlements will typically be less.
Creative Commons is a website that allows creators to share their work and grant a copyright license to those using it. Creators can choose the types of licensing they allow, the uses under those licenses and require attribution. More than 1.6 billion works are registered with the website.
The U.S. Congress passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) in 1998. The law expanded copyright protection to the internet in the following ways:
– Protecting internet service providers if their users violate copyrights
– Encouraging copyright holders to provide greater digital access to works
– Making it illegal to create fake copyright credentials
Social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have made all of us publishers. At this moment, copyright law makes it challenging and impractical to copyright, for example, every original tweet or Facebook post. Terms and conditions that users agree to when creating an account generally absolve social media platforms from blame if a user posts or reposts copyrighted material.
Each platform has it’s own policies and procedures for handling copyright, below are direct links to learn more:
– Facebook Copyright policy
– Instagram Copyright policy
– Twitter Copyright policy
– TikTok Copyright policy
– Twitch DMCA notification guidelines
– YouTube copyright rules & policies
Copyrights are a powerful way of fostering creative expression. Copyright laws are designed to encourage creativity and protect those who make things we all enjoy.
Understanding the core elements of copyright infringement can ensure that whether you are a creator or consumer, you are protected from illegally using protected works.