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Understanding the Basics Copyright Infringement in the U.S.


The subject of copyright infringement often makes news in the United States, particularly when those accused of having committed it – or those accusing others of having infringed their copyrights ­– are famous, such as singers, authors, or movie screenwriters. At its core, copyright infringement occurs when someone violates the exclusive rights granted to a copyright holder without authorization. These rights are outlined in the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976 and are designed to safeguard the works of creators, including literary, artistic, musical, and dramatic works, as well as other intellectual creations, and the nuanced application of its principles can be read in case law.

One of the fundamental principles of copyright law is that creators have the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, perform, display, and create derivative works based on their original creations. And simply stated, any unauthorized use of these rights by another party constitutes infringement. This can include actions such as copying, distributing, or publicly displaying copyrighted material without permission from the copyright owner.

In the digital age, copyright infringement has become increasingly prevalent, facilitated by the ease of copying and distributing content online. From pirated movies and music to unauthorized use of photographs and written works, the internet has presented new challenges in enforcing copyright law. Many of us remember the days in which file-sharing services like Napster® became prevalent in the downloading of music, which was then followed by other similar services like Gnutella, eDonkey and BTorrent for the downloading of music and even movies and software.

Copyright protection extends to both published and unpublished works, granting creators control over their creations regardless of whether they have been formally registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. Note, however, that registering a work can provide additional benefits, such as the ability to seek statutory damages and attorney’s fees in a copyright infringement lawsuit.

But not all unauthorized use of copyrighted work constitutes infringement. Fair use is a judicial doctrine in copyright law that allows for limited use of copyrighted material without the permission of the copyright owner. Fair use is determined by considering factors such as the purpose and character of the use, the nature of the copyrighted work, the amount and substantiality of the portion used, and the effect of the use on the potential market for the copyrighted work. While fair use provides some leeway for certain types of uses, it is a nuanced and often contentious area of copyright law.

In the United States, aside from statutory damages, copyright infringement can result in other civil and criminal penalties. Civil remedies may include injunctions to stop the infringing activity, monetary damages, and the disgorgement of profits obtained through the infringement. Criminal penalties, on the other hand, may involve fines and even imprisonment for severe cases of infringement, particularly when the infringement is held by a court to have been willful.

Creators should take proactive steps to protect their copyrighted works, such as including copyright notices on their creations and registering their works with the U.S. Copyright Office. Additionally, creators should be vigilant in monitoring the use of their works online and taking prompt action to address any instances of infringement.

For individuals and organizations seeking to use copyrighted material, it is a best practice to obtain proper authorization from the copyright owner or ensure that their use falls within the bounds of fair use. Ignorance of copyright law is not a valid defense in cases of infringement, and therefore those involved in the publishing of works, such as digital works, should familiarize themselves with the basics of copyright law to avoid legal repercussions, which could lead to undesirable consequences.

Understanding the basics of copyright law and respecting the rights of creators, we can foster an environment that promotes creativity, innovation, and the fair use of intellectual property. Those involved in the publishing of someone else’s work should be cautious and – when necessary – consult with competent counsel to mitigate the risk of copyright infringement.

If you want to learn more about the basics of copyright protection and enforcement, contact us at the PatentXl Law Firm.