Infringement of Copyright

All lawsuits for infringement of copyright must be filed in federal court. Your copyright must be registered with the US Copyright office in order to be allowed to file an action against the person or business violating your copyright. In the lawsuit, you can ask the court to prevent the defendant from continuing to violate your copyright, as well as asking for money damages and possibly attorney’s fees. You may be able to recover a significant sum of money (up to $150,000), even if the copyright infringement did not cause you any actual monetary harm. 

The defendant in a copyright infringement case can raise certain defenses to the action, such as: 

  • Statute of limitations: too much time has passed between the infringement and the filing of the lawsuit 
  • No notice: the infringement was innocent because the defendant did not know the work was protected by copyright 
  • Original work: the defendant independently created his or her work, and did not copy yours 
  • Authorized use: the defendant had a license or other permission to use the work 
  • Fair use: the defendant only made limited use of your work for purposes 

The “fair use” doctrine states that an author can make limited use of a copyrighted work for limited purposes without the permission of the author or creator. Fair use includes using copyrighted material for things like public commentary, criticism, news reporting, research, parody and nonprofit education. Usually, non-commercial use is fair use, which means that is not making any money. Also, a use that benefits the public in general will often be a fair use. 

Whether the use of copyrighted material is fair use of the work depends on several factors. If you use copyrighted work to add to your own work and make it better, it is more likely to be a fair use of the work, than if you copied it word-for-word. The less you borrow from the original, the more likely it will be a fair use. If you are not competing with the author of the work or impairing the market for his or her work, then it is more likely to be a fair use. Also, if you transform the original work by adding new expression or meaning, it may be considered fair use, even if you make a profit from your creative work. 

Legal Editors: Lawrence Goodwin and Dayrel Sewell, July 2016 (updated December 2018)

Changes may occur in this area of law. The information provided is brought to you as a public service with the help and assistance of volunteer legal editors, and is intended to help you better understand the law in general. It is not intended to be legal advice regarding your particular problem or to substitute for the advice of a lawyer.

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