Forms of Copyright Infringement

By Tom Streissguth

The federal copyright laws protect the creators of original literary and other artistic works. If you register a copyright, then you have the right to protect your work by a claim of infringement. Copyright laws have been on the books for more than a century, but in recent years, the development of new media, and innovative forms of storage and reproduction of visual and written works, have given rise to new forms of copyright infringement.

Text and Images

The classic form of copyright infringement is the direct unauthorized copying of protected text or graphic images in a work that is distributed to the public. Copyright law allows a limited amount of direct copying if the user is quoting material, as in a history book that quotes a source, or in a published book review to illustrate an author's content or style. The source must have attribution, either in the accompanying text or by a reference note. This "fair use" is not very well defined in the law, and each publisher sets its own standards for authors in the interest of avoiding a copyright infringement action by the original author.

Web Use

The Internet offers nearly limitless opportunities for easy copyright infringement. In addition to directly copying text or images to another web page, anyone who downloads an image for his own use, or uses a "pointer" to bring an image up to his web page, is violating copyright. To avoid copyright infringement, the second user must get permission from the original creator to use the text, image, or link. The use of copyrighted material in an e-book without permission is also a violation.

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Digital Reproduction and Display

Unauthorized downloading of copyrighted material is another common form of copyright infringement. While music and video files are sold over the Internet for personal use, copying, selling, or distributing the file without permission represents copyright infringement. This is true whether or not you charge for the work. Any display of an image or text from a copyrighted work for promotional purposes also is a violation of copyright, as is use of that material in an advertisement, T-shirt, or banner.


Using a photocopier to reproduce a book or magazine article, or any other copyrighted printed material, is a violation of copyright, unless the photocopying is done for strictly personal use. Copyright law allows for limited photocopying for educational use, such as the distribution of a poem or the chapter of a book to students in a literature class. Even for educational use, the law also sets out standards of brevity; for example, copied prose material should be no more than 10 percent of the published work or 1,000 words, whichever is less, and must carry a copyright notice.

Copyright Law

Copyright law bans the creation of derivative works that copy the original speech, characters, settings, or plots of another work, if that work is under copyright. Generally, works published in the United States prior to 1923 are not copyrighted. Works created before January 1, 1978 required registration with the U.S. Copyright Office for protection under copyright laws for a 28-year term. Renewal for an additional term of 47 years was then possible. Work created on or after January 1, 1978, subsists from its creation and copyright typically endures for a term consisting of the life of the author and 70 years after the author's death. Copyright protection exists even if the work has not been registered with the U.S. Copyright Office, as long as it was created while the copyright laws were in effect.

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Consequences for Breaking Copyright Laws


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Exemptions for Fair Use of Copyrighted Works

The fair use doctrine limits a copyright holder's rights. The U.S. Copyright Act gives copyright holders the right to sue others who are using or reproducing their copyrighted works without permission. The fair use exemption allows others to copy or display copyrighted work without the holder's permission in certain circumstances. If the use falls under the fair use doctrine, the copyright holder will not be entitled to damages for copyright violations.

Copyright Laws for Students

A copyright protects the creator of a work, such as a writers, artists or musicians, from having their work reprinted or reused without their permission. However, there are some important exceptions in copyright law that allow portions of a copyrighted work to be used without the copyright owner's permission. Some of these exceptions allow the use of copyrighted work for academic purposes, like research or teaching. It is important for students to understand these exceptions, as violating a copyright can result in an expensive legal battle.

Can Students Draw a Cartoon Character or Is It Copyrighted?

The laws of copyright protect original created works, including graphic images such as cartoon characters. Any person or company may claim copyright to a unique and original creation; the copyright holder has the right to register the copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. Registration allows the copyright holder to sue for damages if his creation is copied, sold or reproduced without permission.

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