US Internet Law/Copyright

The Copyright Act of 1976 went into effect January 1, 1978. The act protects original works of authorship, including computer software programs, by investing the author with the exclusive right to copy, reproduce, modify, distribute, publicly display and publicly perform the copyrighted work, generally for a term of the life of the author plus seventy years.

The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act extended the term from life plus 50 to life plus 70 years. The works made for hire term was extended from 75 to 95 years.

Types of work protected: The Copyright Act protects creative expression in works of authorship (which is defined broadly, with little “creativity” required), but it does not protect facts, ideas, discoveries, processes or methods.

The act also protects databases as creative compilations even though the underlying data may be facts (that are not protected).

Copyright interests are held by the individual author unless assigned. Copyrights in works created by employees within the scope of their employment are owned by the employer. Copyrights in works created under contract by an independent contractor are retained by the contractor unless an executed assignment or other document provides for a transfer.

Copyright interests attach automatically upon creation of a work of authorship. Copyright registration is optional, but is a prerequisite to commencing an infringement suit. Significant benefits and access to stronger remedies in an infringement suit result from early registration of a copyright.

Downloading music files, graphics or text from the Internet can constitute infringement because an electronic copy of the work is being made. According to some case law, even loading and running a program from disk can be infringement unless authorized by license, since a copy is being made from disk to random access memory.

Note: There are two legal concepts: Contributory Infringement - a person with knowledge of the infringing activity induces causes or materially contributes to the conduct of another to infringe.

Vicarious Liability - a person or entity has the right and ability to control the activities of the person directly infringing and receives financial benefit from those activities – even if the entity or person is unaware of the activity.

Civil remedies include: Injunctive relief, actual damages, an accounting of profits and in certain circumstances statutory damages of up to $150,000 per work, as well as impoundment and destruction of equipment and infringement material and paying attorney’s fees.

Criminal penalties are: Misdemeanor - up to one year’s imprisonment and fines up to $100,000.

Felony - fines up to $250,000 and up to five years’ imprisonment for the first violation and up to 10 years for repeat offenders.