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What is Copyright Statute of Limitations? Basic Guide

What is copyright statute of limitations featured image
Copyright statute of limitations determines how long a work is protected for. Image credit: Insung Yoon

In 1710, in Great Britain, the first copyright law was established, called The Statue of Anne. It was first issued to protect the rights of authors, but today many creators are protected. Copyright statute of limitations relates to how long this protection lasts.

The main goal is to preserve the right of authorship to the original owner of the material.

Any attempt of reproducing or imitating something protected by a copyright for is punishable by law. Tracking copyright infringements has always been difficult. Since the birth of the Internet, it has become harder than ever.

The main problem is that the Internet created a massive platform that is too big to be monitored in every corner. There’s also simply no one responsible for doing so.

Copyright claims have always been tricky due to false claims or story line conflicts, especially in older cases. That’s why there is something called copyright statute of limitations.

In short this limits the amount of time between registering a copyright, and when you can claim against someone who has infringed it.

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These days, most copyright claims online are in the music industry. Image credit: StatCDN

What is Copyright Infringement?

Copyright infringement is when you use a piece of intellectual property without the owner’s permission. Imagine you own an online newspaper. All the content on the website will be protected by copyright law.

This includes articles, titles, logos, pictures, and even the design of the website. Copyrights guarantee the owner exclusive rights, including reproduction, display, distribution, or alteration of the works.

Copyright infringement is a violation of any of those rights. It is punishable by law. For example, if someone were to copy an article without permission, you’d have the right to take action against that person. As long as it’s within the copyright statute of limitation that is.

Of course, not every act can be considered infringement. For example, someone can freely quote your article in their own journals or for educational purposes. Also, you don’t have exclusive rights to topics or stories that are run by your newspaper.

There are many types of copyright violation, most of which are concerned with unlawful imitation. In recent years, however, due to the burst of online content, many types of copyright infringement became more frequent.

For example, marketing content plagiarism is a growing issue.

Copyright infringement is everywhere. It happens in art, music, photographs, books, TV shows, and much much more. Altering a photograph may come under copyright infringement, and you wouldn’t even know until a person comes along demanding part of the profits.

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There are a number of ways that copyright infringement can occur. Image credit: Imgur

What is a Copyright Statute of Limitations?

Anyone who suffers a copyright infringement is, of course, able to file for a lawsuit. However, they can only do so within a specific period of time called “the copyright statute of limitations.”

Does this mean that someone can get away with infringement if they aren’t caught within the time limit? There are different rules we will discuss below but the timer starts to count mostly after the discovery of the violation.

How Long Does a Copyright Statute of Limitations Apply?

Copyright statute of limitations according to the U.S Copyright Act is three years, if action is taken in a civil lawsuit. Meaning, you can only file a claim within three years of discovering a violation.

This period of time is exclusive for civil court lawsuits. There are instances, however, where a criminal class action can be taken against a violator.

In such cases, the copyrights statute of limitations is extended to five years. An example of criminal copyright infringement is counterfeiting or mass production of the copyrighted material.

In the UK, the copyright statute of limitations depends on the type of work in question.

  • Literary works are protected for 70 years after the death of the author,
  • Computer generated works are protected for 50 years after they are created,
  • Film is copyright protected for 50 years after it is created,
  • Audio content is protected for 70 years after it is first published.

Sometimes, it might be unclear who owns the copyright to different works. For instance, a work might have different authors, who died in different years. Similarly, different editions of a work might be published in different years, with new content.

Translations of literary works even have their own separate copyright protections.

Copyright statute of limitations infographic
All kinds of intellectual property can be protected by copyright law. Image credit: AmazonAWS

Why Does Copyright Statute of Limitations Exist?

You may think that the statute of limitations is unnecessary leeway to criminals. But bear in mind that not all accused are actual criminals. If a long period of time has passed it may become impossible for a defendant to provide evidence.

Every crime has its own statute of limitations suitable for the investigation to be conclusive.

Some would argue that such reasons aren’t applicable to copyrights. Imagine, however, that you were a partner at a marketing consulting firm and you left the company to start your own.

Say you made an agreement to take the content you wrote with you to your new website.

Then a few years later your old partner decides to sue you for copyright infringement. Copyright statute of limitations ensures that you cannot be sued after the passing of such a long time, even if you have lost all evidence of such agreement.

Copyright Infringement Penalties and Damages

If it is proven that a copyright infringement has occurred in court, then the defendant will be subject to penalties.

This penalty can reach up to $150,000 in fines if the judge rules that there is only statutory damage. Statutory damage is when there is no actual copyright damage that can be evaluated.

If the defendant violated multiple copyrights, then they may be subject to many statutory damage fines, each reaching up to $150,000 and no less than $200.

If a copyright infringement is prosecuted in a criminal court, then the defendant may even be sentenced to time in jail.

Copyright Damage

If the defendant uses the copyrighted works to make a profit, then this is considered actual damage. That is, they made money from the work, which is rightfully owed to the creator.

The defendant is then asked to compensate for the exact sum of damages if the copyright owner can provide evidence of such damages. This ensures the return of all copyrighted material proceedings to their lawful owner.

Copyright law evolution timeline
Copyright is an ever-changing legal field. Image credit: i0.wp.com

Copyright Statute of Limitations: Summary

Copyright acts ensure exclusive rights to the owner, given that they fall under copyright law. If any violation occurs without the knowledge of the owner, then he may seek legal action.

However, once the owner knows of any act of infringement there is a copyright statute of limitations that forces action within 3 years of proved knowledge. If the defendant is found guilty, infringement is a serious act that can be punishable by notable fines or even jail time.

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