What Can a Business Do if Its Copyrighted Material Has Been Copied by a Competitor?

By David Carnes

Copyright law protects your work against being copied by a competitor. However, protection is not absolute. If your competitor has copied your work, you must first determine whether the act counts as infringement under copyright law. Before filing a lawsuit, it could be advantageous to send a warning letter.

What Copyrights Protect

Copyrights protect expressions of ideas rather than ideas themselves. You can't copyright information, for example. Your expression must be original and tangible. Telling a story won't copyright it, but writing it down or putting it online will. Your work doesn't have to be registered or published to enjoy protection. If copyright protection applies, you enjoy a monopoly on the reproduction, distribution, modification, public performance and public display of your work. Limited exceptions apply, however. Under the fair use exception, for example, anyone can use a small part of your work for certain purposes. This exception is less likely to apply if your competitor used your work for commercial purposes.

The "Cease and Desist" Letter

If you determine that your copyright has been infringed, you might send your competitor a "cease and desist" letter. In court, a judge may increase your damages if infringement was intentional, and it will be difficult for your competitor to claim unintentional infringement for any act that occurred after it received a cease and desist letter. A cease and desist letter simply identifies the copyrighted material, identifies the copyright owner, describes the acts of infringement, demands that it stop, and threatens legal action if infringement continues. Although you don't need to be a lawyer to draft such a letter, you might have a lawyer send it on your behalf.

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Generally, you must register your copyright before you can file an infringement lawsuit. Even if someone infringes your copyright before it is registered, you can still register your copyright after the infringement and will be afforded many of the same protections as if you had registered it before the infringement took place. You can register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office by completing a simple form online and paying a small filing fee for each work you want protected.


If you qualify for statutory damages, you can claim up to $150,000 per act of infringement without even having to prove your losses. You can also claim attorney's fees, which can be very substantial in complex cases. If you registered your copyright too late to qualify for statutory damages, you can still claim any losses you can prove, plus any extra profits made by your competitor. Whether or not you qualify for statutory damages, you may seek other remedies such as an injunction against further infringement and seizure of any illegal copies of your work.

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How to Pursue Copyright Infringement


Related articles

What to Do When Someone Steals Your Ideas

An unexpressed idea enjoys no legal protections. If you have fixed your idea in a tangible medium, such as by recording a song, writing a novel or creating a prototype invention, it may be entitled to the protection as intellectual property, and you may have legal recourse against someone who steals your idea. The ease with which you may enforce your rights depends on which branch of intellectual property law applies to your idea or creative work.

Punishment for Violating Copyright Laws

Copyright law provides the copyright holder with a legal monopoly on his original works of authorship. Such works include music, literature, art and even software algorithms. The rationale for punishing those who infringe copyrights is that infringement deprives copyright holders of the fruits of their labor, thereby providing an economic disincentive to produce such works in the first place.

How to Copyright Choreography

A copyright affords protection to creators and owners of unique intellectual property that is fixed in some permanent, tangible form such as a written notation, book, video, sound recording, or drawing. To be eligible for copyright protection, your choreography must be original. Under U.S. copyright law, as soon as an original work of authorship, such as choreography, has been created in fixed form, then copyright protection exists from that time. This gives the author or his agent to rightfully claim copyright. However, it is much better to register the copyright, because it creates a public notice that you own the rights and enables you to sue in federal court if someone uses your choreography without your permission. It is important to note that choreography that has not been made into a fixed form is not eligible for copyright protection.

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