Did you ever copy your friend’s homework or sneak a peak over someone’s shoulder during a test? While it might have landed you in hot water (way) back then, what happens when childhood misbehavior “grows up”? Use the legal term “copyright infringement,” and the practice suddenly takes on a much more serious hue. We look at why this kind of Intellectual Property (IP) infringement is so pervasive on the internet, and how you can avoid being a victim … or a perpetrator.
What is copyright infringement?
When creators apply their intellect to produce an artistic piece, they are usually entitled to earn remuneration from the fruits of their labor. Hence, they are automatically awarded the author’s exclusive right to reproduce, modify and distribute their creative work. Though we usually think of copyrights in relation to literature, music and film, this form of IP protection can extend to a much broader spectrum of works, including visual art and photographs, architectural designs and even computer code.
With this in mind, it becomes clear that when someone reproduces a copyright-protected work, in part or entirely, without the owner’s permission, it is an infringement of their IP rights. Right? Not necessarily. While longer-lasting than patents, copyrights are generally not susceptible to being renewed indefinitely as trademarks are. In many jurisdictions, including the United States and the EU, the term of copyright protection for some types of works extends for the whole of the author’s life plus an additional 70 years, after which a work enters the public domain.
What is more, the principles of fair use (United States) and fair dealing (other English-speaking countries) allow for copyright-protected material to be reproduced without the rights holder’s authorization for the purposes of education, research, commentary or critique. In the EU, the InfoSoc Directive harmonized copyright law with similar provisions.
And so, unless you are certain your reproduction of someone else’s material falls under one of these exceptions, that song you put in your video diary or that paragraph you pasted into your blog could make you an infringer.
Of course, you may utilize creations that their owners have specifically licensed for public use (be careful of purported “stock photographs”), but you should always attribute your sources when doing so.
“But everybody does it.”
Copyright infringement takes unfair advantage of another’s time, creative energy and potential revenue – yet it is rife on the internet. Why is this the case? One uncomplicated reason could be convenience. In days gone by, you first had to track down a physical version and copy it by hand. This was a very deliberate, involved process that has been obfuscated by the ease of access granted by the internet. With how easy it is to copy and paste digitally, people might not realize the gravity of what they are doing. Or, they might not be aware that what they believe themselves to be sharing legitimately is itself an unauthorized reproduction.
Naturally, ignorance of the law does not confer immunity from the law. And the same can be said of the excuse that the widespread nature of copyright infringement reduces the damage or severity of individual cases. If anything, this attitude creates a negative feedback loop that emboldens further online infringement. Just because you see other people doing it does not mean you can or should do it.
After all, consider how being exposed as a copyright infringer would impact your standing and reputation as an individual or organization. Potential business partners would be much less inclined to work with someone who has demonstrated a lack of regard for IP rights, whether through bad faith or neglect. This is to say nothing about the litigation and other financial repercussions you could face.
How to spot it …
It is all well and good to avoid reproducing someone else’s material without their permission, but how do you know if your works are the subject of copyright infringement, and what can you do about it? Depending on your particular business sector, AI tools and plagiarism trackers can be useful to detect instances of infringement. For music and video, YouTube’s Content ID system consists of a verified database of copyrighted material submitted by the rights holders, usually large media conglomerates. When a new video is uploaded to the website, it is compared against this catalog, and any possible conflicts are flagged for further action.
Not surprisingly, neither of these approaches can be applied everywhere and at all times. It is often not feasible to actively scan the internet for reproductions of your material. Thankfully, this otherwise herculean task is simplified by the practical realities of business – your immediate competitors are those most likely to infringe your copyrights, and you are keeping tabs on them already.
In this regard, Dennemeyer has first-hand experience. As we are sure you have noticed, we produce a lot of content on all manner of IP topics: reports, whitepapers, analyzes and, of course, this blog. And if you have noticed, then that means other players in the IP industry have too. In what could only be described as an instance of supreme irony, our guide to “IP theft and how to avoid it” was pilfered by a competitor. But rest assured, like any good artisan, we recognize our handiwork the instant we see it and are quick with an appropriate response.
… And what to do about it
Our first measure – and in this case, the only one necessary – was to send the infringing party a cease and desist letter. The recipient immediately complied with our demand and removed our copyrighted material from their website. However, not all violations are resolved so quickly.
In another instance of our material being used without our permission, a different organization in the IP sector committed multiple acts of infringement, even going so far as to promote the information through third-party publishers. When faced with a more recalcitrant opponent, a series of letters was needed to bring about the incremental removal of all the offending material.
Though sending a firm cease and desist letter should always be the first course of action, it is not always the last. Litigation is the next step if a remedy cannot be found within a reasonable timeframe. Of course, initiating court action without first exhausting all non-litigious options can actually hurt a plaintiff’s case. In addition, it is worth mentioning that although the substantial financial expenditure can often be recouped in judgment, the time cannot be invested. For these reasons, outreach should always be pursued in response to copyright infringement.
They say a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client, and they may be right. But an IP full-service provider who has walked a mile in a client’s shoes knows how to get the job done. Reach out to the experts at Dennemeyer to protect your crucial IP assets and enforce your rights across the globe.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.