You run a diversified multinational mass media and entertainment conglomerate whose mascot is a well-known mouse. The movie studio portion of your business decides to produce and distribute a wildly popular 3-D animation film about a fearless princess who sets off on a journey along with her cheerful sidekick snowman. The movie grosses over $400 million in the United States alone, with more profits to come. As you are counting your box office receipts, another filmmaker files a copyright infringement lawsuit against your company, claiming that a trailer for the animated blockbuster infringed on her short film about a snowman that has an uncanny resemblance to the one in your movie. She says the snowman from your film is “substantially similar to the depiction of the snowman character,” and demands damages.
Sound familiar? This is exactly what happened in a 2014 intellectual property case involving a 2-D animator and Walt Disney Studios over the movie Frozen. While that case ended up settling out of court, it is a good example of basic copyright issues.
Let’s look a little more closely at copyright basics, how to file a lawsuit, and where to go to find an experienced intellectual property lawyer in your jurisdiction.
First, we will take a brief look at where copyright law originates. Your creative works are your own. Going back to the Founding Fathers, the U.S. Constitution sets forth that Congress shall pass laws to secure for authors exclusive rights to their writings for limited times.
The Congress shall have Power To… promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries
Later, U.S. lawmakers passed federal statutes to help provide automatic legal protections to the authors of “original works of authorship,” including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works. Since then, the protections have been extended to movies, sound recordings, and computer software – to name a few.
Certain types of works have been excluded from copyright protections over the years, including works in the public domain, processes and systems such as the Dewy Decimal system, and federal government works such as the U.S. tax code.
Filing a Copyright Infringement Suit and Possible Damages
So what do you do if you believe your creative genius has been infringed? You sue in federal court under federal copyright statutes. But first, you’ll want to speak with a knowledgeable attorney who has successfully handled these cases in the past. Why? There are a number of requirements to starting a copyright infringement lawsuit. First, you must have registered your work with the U.S. Copyright Office. These types of lawsuits are highly fact-intensive and often require a long court battle in order to come to a resolution. If you are able to prove infringement, you may be entitled to a number of important remedies, including an injunction to stop the defendant from continuing to illegally use your copyright. You may also be able to receive monetary damages including actual damages.
Copyright Basics: Related Resources
- Intellectual Property
- What is a “Work Made for Hire?”
- STOPFakes (Government website assisting U.S. businesses in protecting and enforcing their intellectual property rights against counterfeits and pirated goods in the global marketplace)
Need a Copyright Attorney?
Whether you are an author, a composer, or even a pantomime, your original works are subject to copyright protections. If after reading this article and doing your own research, you believe someone is using your copyright without permission, you’ll likely want to speak with a lawyer to find out what you can do. A skilled intellectual property lawyer can explain the law and help you get the outcome you deserve.