How to Avoid Copyright Infringement

Here’s how to avoid accidentally stepping on the rights of another’s creative work.

by Jonathan Layton, J.D.
updated March 05, 2021, · 4 min read

Copyright is one of several categories of intellectual property (IP) protection, designed to safeguard the creator’s, owner’s, or holder’s exclusive right to claim an original work as their own—when the work is fixed in a tangible medium.

As soon as a work is written on paper, recorded digitally, or typed electronically—or anything that can be heard, seen, read, or touched—the work is granted copyright protection, normally for a limited period of time.

The U.S. Copyright Act of 1970 was enacted to protect creative works from unauthorized use or copyright infringement. However, despite federal law, which prohibits individuals from copying, publishing, transmitting, exhibiting, distributing, modifying, displaying, or otherwise using (whether for profit or not) the original creative expressions of others, copyright infringement—intentional and inadvertent—still can and does occur.


What Is Copyright Infringement?

Copyright infringement typically involves someone using another person’s original creative work, or a copyrighted work, without permission.

There are many types and forms of copyright infringement. These are some examples of activities that would constitute copyright infringement if you carry them out without first obtaining permission from the owner, creator, or holder of the copyrighted material:

  • Recording a film in a movie theater
  • Posting a video on your company’s website which features copyrighted words or songs
  • Using copyrighted images on your company’s website
  • Using a musical group’s copyrighted songs on your company’s website
  • Modifying an image and then displaying it on your company’s website
  • Creating merchandise for sale which features copyrighted words or images
  • Downloading music or films without paying for their use
  • Copying any literary or artistic work without a license or written agreement

Tips for Avoiding Copyright Infringement

While by no means an exclusive list, these suggestions will help you avoid inadvertently pirating another individual’s creative works:

  • Understand what copyright laws protect. Copyright laws are often confused with trademarks, patents, and licenses. Although these are all forms of IP, copyrights are perhaps the easiest to obtain and also to violate—either intentionally or unintentionally. Familiarizing yourself with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1970 and the Berne Convention regulations is a good start.
  • If it’s not your original work, don’t use it. We’re all probably familiar with the saying, “If it’s not yours, don’t touch it.” Copyright laws adhere to the same philosophy: the golden rule is to obtain the express permission from the owner, creator, or holder of the copyrighted material. Unless you’re the creator of the work, you’re not allowed to use it. This is true even when there is no copyright symbol associated with a work.
  • What you find on the internet is generally not fair game. Generally speaking, anything you see or read on the internet has been copyrighted, by default, given that the material (blogs, literary or artistic works, etc.) were created by someone else. If you copy, reproduce, display, or otherwise hold out another’s work (such as an image, musical recording, article, or any other type of work that you did not create) as your own, you are undoubtedly infringing on copyrighted material. This is true whether you benefited financially from the use or not.

How Do I Report and Address Copyright Infringement?

Although private and government agencies accept and process copyright registrations, those entities don’t normally address alleged copyright infringement claims. As the creator, owner, or holder of the copyrighted material, it’s up to you to enforce your rights to stop the infringing activity.

Perhaps the most straightforward and commonly used method to stop copyright infringement is to send a so-called Copyright Infringement Notice directly to the offending party.

This is a written notice that identifies the copyrighted subject matter, specifies the alleged infringement or unauthorized use, and threatens action if the infringing activity is not immediately terminated. The notice may also seek fines and penalties for the past unauthorized use of the copyrighted work.

A Copyright Infringement Notice (or a Notice of Claimed Infringement) is much like a “cease and desist” letter, commanding the infringer to immediately stop the infringement, undo any potential harm, and remove usages of the copyrighted material from public display at once.

If the first method doesn’t succeed, a second option is for you, as the copyright owner, to file a civil lawsuit against the infringing party. In the lawsuit, you will need to prove that your copyright precedes any usage of the materials by the infringing party. You can typically request a court order demanding the infringing party to immediately stop using the copyrighted material and ask for money damages (that is, monetary compensation) for any actual harm that has occurred as a direct result of the infringement.

What Are the Possible Penalties for Copyright Infringement?

Copyright infringement penalties can be both civil and criminal in nature and include:

  • Copyright infringement damages and actual profits lost as a direct result of the infringement
  • Civil penalties of up to $150,000 per instance of work, in the case of intentional or willful infringement (such as counterfeiting)
  • Statutory damages between $750 and $30,000 per item of work infringed upon
  • Criminal penalties of up to $250,000 in fines per offense and up to five years in jail

You can protect yourself from copyright infringement by registering your creative works with the help of an attorney. An expert can also assist you in pursuing copyright infringement penalties or defend you against an infringement action

Jonathan Layton, J.D.

Jonathan Layton, J.D.

Freelance writer

Jonathan Layton is a graduate of The College of  William and Mary, where he majored in English literature. While in college Layton was a staff writer for The Flat Hat, one of the nation’s oldest student newspapers. While attending Delaware Law School, Layton served as Editor of the Delaware Journal. After graduating, Layton practiced law in a variety of areas for more than 20 years and is a seasoned trial attorney. Currently, Layton has shifted his focus to work as a full-time freelance writer

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