Enforcing Copyright: How Scholars Can Protect Their Work

The Digital Revolution has created a cut-and-paste world in which it is increasingly easy for individuals to copy others' work and, intentionally or not, pass it off as their own. As copyright infringement becomes more commonplace, it is increasingly important for creators of content to take steps to protect their work.

By Douglas Fehlen

copyright law copyright enforcement intellectual property

Rights Holders Have Responsibilities

The Copyright Act of 1976 protects the work of authors, artists and other content creators from infringement. Important to note, however, is that no department of the federal government actively polices individuals' works. Rather, it is largely up to rights holders to be vigilant of possible copyright violations and to take steps to address them.

In an ideal scenario, of course, infringement does not occur. One preventive measure you can take is to include notification that your work is protected by copyright. With the notification, include your name and the year of origination (for example, 'Copyright © 2011 by Jane Smith'). Such a notice is not required by law to retain legal protections, but it can stop people from illegally using your work. And in the event you do have a copyright complaint, inclusion of a notification can be an influencing factor in whether or not an individual is found to have infringed upon your work.

Understand Your Rights

You are the lawful owner of works you create, but the nature of your rights can change if you enter into any contracts for the publication of your work. For this reason it's important to understand what bearing any agreements have on copyright. Some media firms allow content creators to retain copyright while exercising (often exclusive) rights to a work's production and distribution. A traditional contract and royalties publisher is a good example of this type of company. Bear in mind that while copyright may remain in your name, there will likely be limitations on how you can use your work.

Another publishing scenario can leave you with no legal claim to copyright. Many companies employ writers, artists and other content producers on a strictly 'work for hire' basis. In this situation, a firm is basically providing a creator's fee with the stipulation that you make no claim of ownership to the work. Rather, the organization owns the copyright. If it's important for you to hold onto the rights and protections granted by the Copyright Act, you'll want to avoid entering into any work for hire agreements.

Addressing Infringement

So what can you do when your work is used illegally? If you have a publisher, it is a good idea to contact the firm right away. It's likely staff members have experience dealing with other copyright violations, and the company may be prepared to use financial resources to address infringement. In the event you are solely responsible for protecting your work, you'll have to first determine whether infringement has occurred. Copyright law does allow for fair use of a work, which is the use of material for purposes of criticism, commentary and parody. If you believe an individual has violated these or any other legal boundaries, there are a number of steps you might take:

Contact the person who has misused your work. It's possible that an individual has unknowingly infringed upon your rights and that, upon being notified, will want to make things right. Many rights holders send a cease and desist letter, which demands that infringement stop with the threat of legal action. If your work has been unlawfully reproduced in a physical format (for example, a book), you can ask that any remaining copies be sent to you or destroyed. You might also demand payment for the use of your content.

Contact the publisher. In some cases, it may be easier to contact the publisher of an infringing work. This may be a book or magazine publisher, an academic institution or another organization. Bringing attention to the infringement should lead to immediate action, at least among reputable organizations. Of course, copyright infringement is particularly prevalent on the Internet. In online settings, you may contact a website's operator. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act provides that you can send takedown notice to sites that infringe upon your work. If a website is unresponsive, consider sending the notice to the site's Internet service provider or domain registrar. You can also contact search engines to ask that an offending site not appear in searches.

File a civil lawsuit. Many people who have their copyrighted work illegally used pursue civil litigation. In this setting, copyright holders may seek that a defendant cease publishing the infringing work and destroy any physical volumes that exist. Courts may also demand that copyright holders receive restitution for any profits lost because of the infringement. Given that copyright law is so complex, it's a good idea to secure the services of a legal professional with experience in intellectual property. Your state's bar association may be able to direct you to qualifying individuals.

Involve federal officials. In some cases, it may be best to inform the government directly about infringement. If you have a copyright complaint, you can contact the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Intellectual Property Program of the Financial Institution Fraud Unit. Get in touch with your local FBI office or file a complaint online.

It's important to note that if it does become necessary to pursue legal remedies to protect your work, you will have to register it with the U.S. Copyright Office (provided you have not already done so). It's advised to take this step as soon as possible - often in disputes the claimant with the earliest registered copyright claim prevails.

Learn about Creative Commons licenses, which represent a way for you to share your work online while maintaining some copyright protections.

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