What is Copyright Infringement? - Understanding Copyright Law

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  • 0:05 The Copyrighted Tattoo
  • 1:51 Copyrights
  • 3:59 Copyright Infringement
  • 5:49 Exceptions to Infringement
  • 8:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

Copyright is a type of intellectual property right that protects certain original works. Copyright laws work to provide authors with exclusive rights to their works. Any unauthorized use could amount to copyright infringement. This lesson explains copyright law and copyright infringement.

The Copyrighted Tattoo

The Hangover Part II provided an unexpected lesson in copyright law. In this Warner Bros. movie, the characters engage in a night of hard drinking in Bangkok. Stu wakes up surprised to find a tribal-inspired tattoo on his face. The unusual tattoo is identical to that of famous boxer Mike Tyson's. This connection is most likely purposeful, since Tyson appeared in the original The Hangover movie. But, at least one person didn't think the resemblance was funny. Though Tyson's tattoo was eight years old at the time, Tyson's tattoo artist registered a copyright for the artwork only a few weeks before the movie's official opening. He then filed a lawsuit against Warner Bros. for copyright infringement, saying he never authorized the use of his design in the movie or in advertisements.

Copyright infringement is a federal, civil cause of action. It occurs when a copyrighted work is reproduced, distributed, performed, publicly displayed, or made into a derivative work without the permission of the copyright owner. Warner Bros. argued that they didn't need the tattoo artist's permission to display his work because the use of the tattoo was a parody. A parody is a work that ridicules another, usually well-known, work by imitating it in a comic way. A federal judge refused to issue an injunction that would delay the movie's release, but ruled that the tattoo artist had a valid cause of action that should be heard. Instead, the parties settled the dispute about a month after the movie opened.

Copyrights

A tattoo is one type of an original work of authorship, and can, therefore, be copyrighted. A copyright is a form of legal protection automatically provided to the authors or creators of original works. Copyright protection is vast and very inclusive. It applies to items such as original literary, dramatic, musical, choreographic, photographic, architectural, and artistic works.

It's important to note, though, that ideas can't be copyrighted. Copyright protection only applies to tangible forms of expression. For example, let's say that I have an idea for a song. I've been working on the lyrics in my head. These lyrics aren't copyrighted. Then, late one night I jot down a few verses of the song on a notepad. These verses are automatically copyrighted because they're an original and creative work that's now been expressed in a tangible form. I don't have to actually publish this work in order to have copyright protection. Also, note that the copyright belongs to me, since I'm the author or creator. But, let's say that I write songs as a part of my job, and I'm writing this song in the capacity of my employment. In this case, my employer will automatically own the copyright.

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