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Definition, Meaning, Example and Criteria

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What Is Copyright Infringement?

Copyright infringement is the use or production of copyright-protected material without the permission of the copyright holder. Copyright infringement means that the rights afforded to the copyright holder, such as the exclusive use of a work for a set period of time, are being breached by a third party. Music and movies are two of the most well-known forms of entertainment that suffer from significant amounts of copyright infringement. Infringement cases may lead to contingent liabilities, which are amounts set aside in case of a possible lawsuit.

Key Takeaways

  • Copyright infringement is the use or production of copyright-protected material without the permission of the copyright holder.
  • Individuals and companies who develop new works register for copyright protection to ensure that they can profit from their efforts.
  • Other parties may be granted permission to use those works through licensing arrangements or buy the works from the copyright holder.

Understanding Copyright Infringement

Individuals and companies who develop new works and register for copyright protection do so in order to ensure that they can profit from their efforts. Other parties may be granted permission to use those works through licensing arrangements or may purchase the works from the copyright holder; however, several factors may lead other parties to engage in copyright infringement.

Reasons include a high price for the authorized work or a lack of access to a supply of the authorized work.

The United States Copyright Office is responsible for accepting new applications or claims for copyrights, which totaled 403,000 in 2021 alone. The copyrights were granted to creators of literary works, performing arts, music, and visual arts.

In 2021, the United States Copyright Office generated $34 million in registration application fees.

The U.S. Copyright Office defines copyright infringement as such: “As a general matter, copyright infringement occurs when a copyrighted work is reproduced, distributed, performed, publicly displayed, or made into a derivative work without the permission of the copyright owner.”

The Copyright Office doesn’t actually prosecute those who violate copyright law but instead assists the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) on the court cases and the necessary legal documentation.

Copyright Infringement Issues

Copyright infringement issues have varied over the years, but with rapid advances in technology, the Copyright Office has faced a growing number of issues in an effort to keep pace with innovation.


Modern technology makes it relatively easy to copy a product or information, and some companies derive a substantial part of their revenue from replicating what other companies have created.

In response, the Copyright Office established the Copyright Modernization Office in 2018. The division is responsible for coordinating IT (internet technology) modernization projects with the goal of modernizing the Copyright Office as well as the Library of Congress.

International Issues

Copyright infringement and the resulting laws surrounding protection can vary from country to country, with different options for recourse and different amounts of protection. In an international setting, it can be difficult to prove copyright ownership, and domestic courts may see the enforcement of copyright claims from international companies as a threat to national productivity.

Some international organizations, such as the European Union, attempt to keep the regulations and enforcement guidelines of its member countries as harmonized as possible.

Photography and Visual Assets

With the advances in digital imagery, it’s become easier than ever to copy an image. Over the past few years, the Copyright Office has been made aware of various copyright issues from photographers, illustrators, and graphic artists.

Non-Economic Rights

Not all copyright infringement results in a measurable monetary loss per se. Moral rights are enforced as well, which cover an author’s right to be identified as the author of a work; called the right of attribution. Also, authors look to prevent changes or distortions of their work; called the right of integrity.

The Internet

The growing importance of the Internet has created new obstacles for copyright holders. It is easier than ever for copyrighted materials to be accessed by companies around the world, and the creation of new technologies has outpaced the regulatory environment’s ability to ensure that copyrights apply to new formats.

Real-World Example

For example, the music industry was caught off guard by the development of online music-sharing websites such as Napster.

Napster was an online music website that allowed peer-to-peer sharing of music files through their network. Customers would share or distribute music of various artists for free. Record companies within the music industry sued Napster for copyright infringement to protect their intellectual property and won their case.

Napster was found in violation of copyright laws because, in part, the company knew of the widespread distribution and did not do enough to stop it. Also, the music was copied and used by customers, which was financially harmful to record companies and the sale of their music. Napster was also found to have financially benefited at the expense of record companies by allowing the copy and distribution of music.

Companies seeking targets for copyright infringement claims can also go after the companies providing the files, but could also seek damages from internet service providers (ISPs) as well as individual users. 

In a more recent music-related copyright infringement case, in 2020, the estate of Randy Wolfe, a member of the band Spirit, claimed copyright infringement against the band Led Zeppelin. The estate claimed that Led Zeppelin had copied parts of Spirit’s song “Taurus” in their song “Stairway to Heaven.” The case began in 2014 but was finalized in 2020 in Led Zeppelin’s favor.

How Long Does Copyright Protection Last?

Copyright protection for works created after Jan. 1, 1978, lasts for the life of the creator plus 70 years. For anonymous work, pseudonymous work, or work made for hire, copyright protection lasts for 95 years from the date of first publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever expires first. For works created before 1978, the length of copyright protection varies on a variety of factors.

Is Copyright Infringement Illegal?

Yes, copyright infringement is illegal. Most often copyright infringement is a civil issue rather than a criminal one. Penalties for copyright infringement usually include a fine and/or payment to the injured party.

How Do You Prove Copyright Infringement?

In some cases, copyright infringement can be difficult to prove. Steps an individual can take to prove copyright infringement has occurred is first to prove they have ownership of the copyright. The next step would be to prove that the alleged infringing individual had access to this copyrighted work, and then to prove that the original copyrighted item has been copied. If the alleged copied work is not identical or very similar to the original work, it can be difficult to prove copied elements.

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