Knock-Offs & Copyright Protection

By Cindy Hill

Copyright law helps protect writers, artists and other copyright holders by precluding others from using their creative works without permission. Knock-offs, or unauthorized imitation goods that are passed off to consumers as the real thing, can violate copyright law when the knock-off goods are books, paintings, movies or other creative works. Owners of active, registered copyrights can gain protection against copyright knock-offs with civil lawsuits or, in certain extreme cases, by pressing criminal charges.

Scope of Copyright Protection

Copyright protects creative intellectual property like fiction and non-fiction writing, stage and screenplay scripts, musical compositions and arrangements, and works of visual art including paintings, sculptures and photographs. The copyright holder has the exclusive right to copy or distribute the creative work, or to make derivative works, such as a sequel to a novel or movie, or posters made from a painting. Consumer goods like fashion items or home appliances are not subject to copyright law. Knock-offs of these consumer goods may violate unfair trade practices or trademark laws, but only knock-off creative works can violate copyright laws.

Public Domain

Copyright protection lasts only for a certain period of time. For most creative works made after 1978 in the United States, this period is the lifetime of the creator of the work, plus 70 years. After this time period, the works are considered to be in the public domain. Some writers or artists also release their works to the public domain instead of actively claiming copyright protection. Works in the public domain can be duplicated and sold by anyone without violating copyright laws. A reprint of an 18th century novel, for example, would not be considered a unlawful knock-off.

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Items Not Copyright Protected

The U.S. copyright laws do not protect titles, names or slogans, recipes, tape measures, calendars, or other works of general public knowledge that do not contain a substantial portion of original creative thought. A pocket calendar will not be considered an unlawful knock-off of another pocket calendar unless it also copies, without permission, creative components like photographs or text other than that associated with the names of the days and months and holidays. Story plots can not be copyright protected, so a story about star-crossed lovers or a Southern family after the Civil War may be similar to a famous literary work, but may not be an unlawful knock-off in violation of copyright laws.


A copyright holder must register her copyright with the United States Copyright Office before being authorized to file a civil lawsuit seeking enforcement for copyright infringement from knock-off works. A successful copyright enforcement lawsuit can result in the court issuing an injunction against the person producing knock-off goods, as well as damages, attorney's fees, and the costs of bringing the legal action. The U.S. Government can also bring a criminal prosecution against individuals who deliberately infringe on a copyright for monetary gain, where the infringement is for a value of at least $1000 over a 180-day period. Criminal penalties for selling knock-offs of copyrighted goods can include a prison sentence as well as fines.

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