Copyright infringement occurs when a copyrighted work is used without authorization or is prohibited by the copyright holder. Copyright is usually granted by law to the creator of a work at the time of its creation.
Copyright infringement lawsuits are often for great sums of money, because they are usually filed after the success of a piece of work. The legal process is a slow one, and so when the suit finally comes to trial the work has already earned a fortune that the prosecuting party feels entitled to. Copyright infringement cases can be very bitter, not only because of the large sums of money involved, but because of the personal nature of the accusation of plagiarism is seen as an attack on one’s character.
The majority of copyright infringement court cases are settled out of court. Because of the nature of copyright and creative industries, it is inevitable that ideas will be recycled, and often it is cheaper for the offending party to settle this without contesting the case in court.
Music Copyright Infringement Cases
Music copyright infringement cases are usually based on accusations of plagiarism. These cases mostly revolve around all or part of a song that sounds remarkably similar to an existing song by a different artist or group. This similarity can be either musical or lyrical.
There are many copyright infringement examples in music, one of the most famous of which was in 1971, commonly known as George Harrison vs. Bright Tunes Music Corporation. Former Beatle George Harrison released ‘My Sweet Lord’ as his first solo single, which reached number 1 in the music charts and remained there for five weeks, and again in 2002 for a week, with a total chart-time of 27 weeks.
After the song had left the charts, Bright Tunes Music Corporation filed a suit against Harrison for plagiarism of a song called ‘He’s So Fine’ by the Chiffons, written in 1962. Though an out-of-court settlement was proposed, for $148,000, it was refused and the suit went to court. Bright Tunes Music Corporation wanted 75% of all royalties and the surrendering of the copyright of ‘My Sweet Lord’ by Harrison.
Harrison’s legal team failed to prove that the song was substantially different to the Chiffon’s song, and in February 1976 the court ruled against Harrison. The judgement was that while Harrison had probably not intentionally plagiarized the song, it was still very, very similar to ‘He’s So Fine’, and Harrison was forced to pay $587,000, but he did not lose the copyright of ‘My Sweet Lord’.
Trademark infringement cases are usually when a trademark is used on a product without the authorization of the trademark owner. The violating trademark does not have to be identical; a trademark that is original but extremely similar to an existing trademark can still qualify as infringement.
In the U.S. a trademark is not automatically registered to its creator, and so it cannot be legally infringed until it is registered. However, there may still be a case against the infringer under common law for passing off or misrepresentation.
Most patent infringement cases deal with the prohibited or unauthorized use of a patented invention. If the holder of a registered patent does not permit the use of their invention, then the user is liable.
Patents are only enforced in the country in which they were registered. If, for example, an invention is patented in the U.S. then anyone in the U.S. is legally prohibited from making or selling the item, but someone in Mexico is legally free to do so.
Permission to use a patented invention is usually given as a license.
Recent Copyright Infringement Cases
In 2008, Psystar Corporation based in Miami, Florida, began to sell ‘Open Computers’, personal computers which could be pre-installed with Mac OS X Leopard, an operating system developed by Apple. Psystar also offered to sell (legitimately) copies of Mac OS X, which then could be installed on a non-Mac home computer.
Apple filed a copyright infringement case against Psystar, on the grounds that the end-user license agreement for the Mac operating system prohibited third-party installations of Mac OS X, and Psystar had violated that clause.
Psystar argued that their actions were outside of the scope of Apple’s ability to determine how users used the software they had purchased. They likened it to a car manufacturer including a clause in their license agreement that allowed them to determine what roads you could drive the car on.
Psystar then counter-sued Apple for anti-competitive practises, copyright misuse and monopolistic behaviour. The counter-sue attempt failed, and Apple won the original court case against Psystar. The court ruled that Psystar was illegally copying, modifying and distributing Apple’s programming code, and for circumventing Apple’s kernel encryption, acts that are in violation of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act.
After filing for bankruptcy, Psystar was forced to pay Apple $2.7 million for copyright infringement.
In April 2009, American rapper Lil Wayne filed a suit against production company Rebel Rock Productions for failing to obtain the necessary licensing agreements for a sample used on the song, taken from Karma-Ann Swanepoel’s song ‘Once’.
This occurred because Lil Wayne himself was sued for copyright infringement over the sample that was used in his song ‘I Feel Like Dying’. Though Karma-Ann Swanepoel was approached by Rebel Rock Productions for the rights to use the sample, ‘I Feel Like Dying’ had been heavily promoted by streaming the track on MySpace and YouTube.
Swanepoel filed to sue for compensatory damages, even though Lil Wayne did not actually profit directly from these broadcasts as the song was leaked onto the internet and proliferated via peer-to-peer websites.
The case was dropped after it was revealed that the song was not sold on any retail album, and that Lil Wayne was not responsible for the leak.