Legal Brief: Copyright Infringement Claims by Non-Practicing Entities
Legal Briefs appear in e-Inside to keep faculty and staff informed of legal issues and their implications. An archive of past Legal Briefs is available online.
Copyright infringement occurs when a copyright-protected work is used in violation of a copyright owner’s exclusive rights to reproduce, distribute, display or publicly perform their copyrighted work. The university has committed resources to assist students, faculty and staff in the appropriate use of copyright-protected works to avoid copyright infringement (see University Policy 3-10, University Policy Regarding Use of Copyright Protected Works, effective Jan. 19, 2016, pending approval at the Dec. 8, 2015, Board of Trustees’ Meeting). However, the Internet has made it extremely easy to unknowingly infringe upon copyright-protected photographs and graphics. Often, “stock images” pulled from the Internet are not clearly marked as copyright protected, and the copyright holder, and/or the source of the work may not be identified.
The practice of incorporating copyright-protected photos or clip-art made available through an Internet search engine into an electronic publication, blog, Web page, PowerPoint presentations or other document accessible through the Internet has created a growing industry of organizations and law firms that target unknowing copyright infringers. These organizations, sometimes referred to as “copyright trolls” or “non-practicing entities” (NPEs), normally obtain limited rights in copyrighted works from multiple copyright owners, for the sole purpose of extracting quick monetary settlements with a person or entity using any such works without authorization.
These firms use various technologies to scour the Internet to locate copyright-protected works being used without authorization. Once they have located such work, they will normally issue a cease and desist letter threatening a large dollar amount (up to $150,0000), and follow up with multiple calls in the hope that the unauthorized user, who is not versed in U.S. copyright law, will settle for a smaller dollar amount than the amount threatened in the letter.
Faculty and staff who are contacted regarding an allegation of copyright infringement should immediately refer the matter to the Office of General Counsel. Do not engage, respond or communicate with the accuser through email, phone or by letter.
Avoid the NPE trap – be sure that any images you gather from the Internet are either in the public domain, properly licensed and available for use royalty-free or are being used under one of the exceptions to the exclusive use of a copyright-protected work set forth in the U.S. Copyright Act (see Policy 3-10). If you are not sure whether a certain image is available for use, contact University Libraries’ Copyright Services or the Office of General Counsel for assistance before using the image.