Based upon the Copyright Act of 1976 and later amendments and international treaties, basically any work you create is automatically protected by copyright. Take a picture, copyrighted. Write a poem, copyrighted. Make a movie, copyrighted. Now, there are many exceptions, and your own work may infringe on someone else’s copyright (as in you cannot just take a picture of a painting that is still in copyright), but as a basic proposition, you will have various protections. However, copyrights are not trademarks and vice versa.
The main protection you have is to prevent others from copying your work without your permission. Or, if you use a license, such as a copyleft or creative commons (CC) type of license, you force users to abide by your conditions, such as no commercial use or required attribution. There are some other protections, but that is best left to a class on copyrights.
However, while the copyright is automatic, the ability to enforce your rights do not kick-in until you have registered your work with the United States Copyright Office. That is, until you have registered, you cannot sue anyone, and your damages do not start to accrue until after registration.
This means that unless you have registered your work, you can basically only threaten to sue someone or send them a take-down notice. Now, most websites have mechanisms in place to receive take-down notices due to provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) in order to avoid liability. This is why Facebook, Twitter, and to an extent Google can avoid many copyright claims, as they remove content from their servers when told about infringing material. So, a stern take-down notice usually does the trick, even if your work is not registered.
Infringement can come in many different forms. The easiest to spot is to go to YouTube and search for a popular movie, and you will likely find video of the movie pulled from someone’s TV or DVR. YouTube will eventually take it down, but it is still infringement.
However, infringement can take many other forms. If a picture requires attribution and the person using it fails to say who took the picture, that is infringement. If someone modifies your picture without your permission, that is infringement. If you take a picture of a statue that is at your local library, that too is infringement, assuming the statue is copyrighted. Even taking a picture of someone’s house could by, if the house has a copyrighted design and you are trespassing when you take the picture.
With music, if you used Napster (or other peer-to-peer networks) to build a music library, you likely infringed a few copyrights. If you rip the music from a music video on YouTube, that is infringement. If you take the lyrics to a song and change the lyrics to sell tires at your store, that is infringement. Even playing songs from CDs you bought at the store at your party is infringement, as your license is for home, private use. Stores use the Muzak service for a reason, as commercial places cannot just put in some regular CDs for background music, as they do not have the correct license. Go to the sports bar to watch the big game on a premium network, and unless the bar has the correct license, they are infringing on copyrighted broadcast.
The latest craze is to use BitTorrent or other new peer-to-peer sharing apps to download movies. From a convenience standpoint, it is great, as just about every movie out there is at your fingertips. And it is free, which I have been told is a very good price.
Problem is, all of these movies are copyrighted. And, using the music industry’s playbook from circa 2000, the movie studios are now aggressively policing these and going after people who have illegally downloaded their movies. That movie you could have rented for $7.99 is now going to cost a whole lot more.
Plus, often times it is you children who do this without you even knowing. Younger kids may not know it is wrong, but your teenager probably does, but hey, everyone else is doing it too. The problem for you, is under Oregon law (see Oregon Revised Statues §30.765), as the parent you will be responsible. So talk to your children now, before you get hit with a $5,000 lawsuit.
This takes us to the damages, which is what you will have to pay the copyright holder, or what you can demand from an infringer. What we call the statutory damages, which is basically the minimum amount the court can order (there are some exceptions), are $750 per infringement. Thus, if you downloaded ten movies, that is $7,500.
But wait, there’s more. You are responsible for the costs the copyright holder incurred to come after you, which can be thousands of dollars as well. And the $750 is the minimum, and the courts are inclined to go higher if you were an egregious violator.
In other words, it might sound cool to get a free song or a free movie, but you risk a much higher bill down the road. Plus, there can be criminal prosecution, though that is usually reserved for people selling pirated material.
This is just a very small bit of information on copyrights. If you have more questions or need advice, call Stevens & Legal. We have experience in defending lawsuits for infringement, sending take down notices, and licensing images.