According to intellectual property laws, a copyright is a legal right that is created in an author’s work. Copyrights provide the author of a new and creative work with exclusive publication, distribution, and usage rights for their work. As such, a copyright prevents other people from using the author’s originally authored work, at least without their permission.
Under the federal copyright law, a copyright entitles an author to many exclusive rights. Some examples of such exclusive rights include the right to:
- Reproduce the copyrighted work as desired;
- Distribute copies of the copyrighted work to the public for sale; and
- Perform the copyrighted work as desired.
Some examples of copyrightable works include, but are not limited to:
- Song lyrics, musical compositions, and sound recordings;
- Plays, motion pictures, and scripts;
- Paintings and drawings;
- Broadcasts; and
- Websites and online content.
Copyright infringement occurs when someone violates a copyright owner’s exclusive rights, without the express consent of the owner or author.
In addition to the aforementioned rights, the following are some examples of copyrights and common copyright infringements:
- Infringement of the Right of Reproduction: Copyright owners maintain the exclusive right to reproduce their work in any fixed form. As such, when a person reproduces a work by copying it and sells it, that act is considered to be infringing an owner’s right of reproduction. An example of infringement of the right of reproduction would be copying a painting of an original artwork and selling it;
- Infringement of the Right of Public Performance: If a person publicly performs an original protected song without permission, the act would be considered infringing the copyright owner’s right of public performance;
- Infringement of the Right of Distribution: An example of infringing an owner’s right of distribution would be if someone sells unlicensed copies of someone else’s original work, such as a work of literature or art. For example, an individual could not copy a famous musician’s music and distribute copies of that music for financial gain;
- Infringement of the Right to Derivative Works: Copyright owners possess the right to modify their original work, or create a new work based on their older works. When a person creates a derivative of an original work without permission, it would be infringement of the right to derivative works. The most common example of this would be creating a movie based on a book without the author’s permission to do so; and/or
- Infringement of the Right of Public Display: Copyright owners have the right to publicly show their work. This includes publishing their work online. If a person publishes someone else’s original work online, without the owner’s permission, it would be considered infringing a copyright owner’s right of public display. For example, releasing a movie online for the general public without the owner’s permission would be considered an infringement of the right of public display.
What Are Some Penalties for Copyright Infringement?
If an individual infringes on the exclusive rights of a copyright holder, the holder of the copyright may sue the infringer civilly for damages resulting from that infringement. Common legal penalties associated with copyright infringement include:
- Compensatory Damages: One of the most common remedies associated with a copyright infringement suit is that the infringing party will have to pay the copyright holder the money that they gained from the use of the copyright;
- Statutory Damages: Statutory damages are damages that are established by statute, specifically Section 504 of the Copyright Act. Statutory damages allow the owner of a copyright to recover a specified amount of damages, typically between $200.00 and $150,000.00 per work that is infringed. Statutory damages will be higher for parties that willfully violate a copyright, and lesser for parties that were not aware they were violating a copyright;
- Injunction: The most common remedy for copyright infringement is an injunction. An injunction is a court order that orders the party violating the copyright to stop their infringing acts;
- Orders of Seizure: If an infringing party possesses illegal copies of a copyrighted work, often the court will order that the illegal property be seized; and
- Criminal Penalties: In the case of willful copyright infringement, the infringing party may also be held criminally liable, and face criminal penalties including imprisonment for a period of up to 5 years, fines of up to $250,000.00, or both per violation.
It is important to note that a copyright infringement lawsuit may include any combination of the above damages, as well as attorney fees and court costs. A lawyer for copyright infringement will be able to determine which remedies are appropriate depending on the circumstances of each case.
How Do I Prove Someone Infringed on My Copyright?
In order to prove that someone infringed on your copyright, you must prove the following two elements of copyright infringement:
- You Own a Valid Copyright: Although it may seem obvious the first element to proving someone violated your copyright is to prove that you have a valid copyright. Once again, in order to establish you have a valid copyright, you must demonstrate to the court that your work is an original work of authorship, which exists in a tangible medium of expression, that is subject to legal protection. In other words, you must demonstrate that you created a copyrightable work, such as the ones listed above. Although it is not a requirement to register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office, doing so will make proving you own a valid copyright much easier; and
- Your Copyright Was Infringed: In order to prove that your copyrighted work was infringed upon, you must demonstrate that your exclusive rights, such as the ones listed above, were infringed upon. In some cases, this is an easy element to prove where your actual work was copied or is being used for financial gain. In other cases, you will have to demonstrate that someone else’s work is substantially similar to yours to the point that their work is the same as your copyrighted work.
How Do I Prove Someone Copied My Work?
It is important to note that every copyright infringement case is different. As noted above, some cases of copyright infringement are obvious. For example, cases where a person completely copied a piece of copyrighted work and is distributing it without permission for financial gain. In other cases, the copyright infringement may not be as obvious. For instance, where the infringing party created a derivative work that is substantially similar to a copyrighted piece of work.
In such cases, circumstantial evidence may be used to prove that the infringing work is substantially similar to the original copyrighted work. For example, if your original work was a painting of two children flying a yellow kite being struck by lightning, and the alleged infringing work is two children flying a red kite being struck by lightning, the court would likely determine the two works were substantially similar enough.
Additional evidence that the infringing party had access to your work would also provide more evidence of the infringement. For example, if the painter of the red kite picture lived in the same town as the yellow kite artist, the yellow kite painter could use that as evidence that the infringing party had access to their original work.
Someone Infringed on My Copyright, Should I Hire an Attorney?
As can be seen, copyright infringement lawsuits may be very complex, and require a thorough knowledge of the various Copyright protection laws. Thus, if you believe that someone has infringed on your copyright, it is in your best interests to consult with a well qualified and knowledgeable copyright lawyer. A local copyright lawyer will be able to help you determine whether or not your work has legally been infringed upon, as well as what damages you should seek to compensate you for the infringement.
An attorney will help you immediately seek out an injunction to prevent the further infringement of your copyright, as well as help negotiate a settlement with the infringing party, if possible. If a civil lawsuit is required, an attorney will also help you gather the evidence necessary to prove your claim, as well as represent your interests in court, as necessary.