Navigating the realm of copyright law can be a complex endeavour, especially when it comes to understanding the implications of time on copyright claims.

At the heart of this matter lies the Copyright Statute of Limitations, a legal principle that sets the temporal boundaries within which legal actions concerning copyright infringements must be initiated. This statute is crucial as it helps maintain a fair legal landscape, ensuring that claims are made within a reasonable time frame while providing a clear endpoint to potential liabilities for the parties involved.

This guide aims to unravel the basics of the Copyright Statute of Limitations, shedding light on its significance, how it operates, and the impact it has on copyright holders and alleged infringers alike. Whether you are a creator, a consumer, or a legal enthusiast, grasping the essence of this statute is fundamental to understanding how copyright law functions over time.

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 to reproduce or imitate something protected by a copyright is punishable by law. Tracking copyright infringements has always been difficult. Since the birth of the Internet, it has become harder than ever.

What is copyright statute of limitations featured image

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 a 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

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

Anyone who suffers a copyright infringement is, of course, able to file 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.

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 copyright statute of limitations is extended to five years. An example of criminal copyright infringement is counterfeiting or mass production of 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.

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

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.

In the UK, copyright rules are outlined by the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, which has been amended multiple times since its inception on August 1, 1989​. Copyright is an intangible property right subsisting in certain qualifying subject matter, and it protects original works from being used without the creator’s permission​.

Here are key points regarding copyright rules in the UK:

  1. Automatic Protection:
    • In the UK, copyright protection is automatic upon the creation of original works. There is no need to apply or pay a fee for copyright protection, and there isn’t a register of copyright works in the UK​.
  2. Types of Works Protected:
    • Copyright can protect various types of original works including:
      • Literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, including illustration and photography.
      • Non-literary written work such as software, web content, and databases.
      • Sound and music recordings.
      • Film and television recordings.
      • Broadcasts.
      • The layout of published editions of written, dramatic, and musical works​,
  3. Requirements for Copyright Protection:
    • For copyright to subsist in a work, several criteria must be met:
      • The work must be original, meaning it should originate from its author and not be copied from another work.
      • The work must be fixed, i.e., recorded in writing or in some other material form.
      • The work must meet UK qualification requirements, either through the nationality of its author or through its place of first publication.
      • The relevant term of copyright must not have expired​,
  4. Duration of Copyright Protection:
    • The duration of copyright protection varies based on the type of work:
      • Literary, dramatic, musical, or artistic works: life of the author plus 70 years.
      • Computer-generated literary, dramatic, musical, or artistic works: 50 years from the end of the calendar year in which the work was made.
      • Films: 70 years after the death of the last to survive of the principal director, author of the screenplay or dialogue, and composer of any music specifically created for the film.
      • Sound recordings: 50 years from the end of the calendar year in which the recording is made, or if published during that period, 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which it was first published.
      • Broadcasts: 50 years from the end of the calendar year in which the broadcast was made.
      • Typographical arrangement of a published edition: 25 years from the end of the calendar year in which the edition was first published​.
  5. Usage Rights:
    • Copyright prevents others from:
      • Copying the work.
      • Distributing copies of it, whether free of charge or for sale.
      • Renting or lending copies of the work.
      • Performing, showing, or playing the work in public.
      • Making an adaptation of the work.
      • Putting it on the internet​.

These rules help maintain a fair legal landscape by ensuring that creators are acknowledged and rewarded for their work while preventing others from using it without permission.

In the UK, copyright infringement can lead to both civil and criminal penalties, depending on the circumstances of the infringement. Here’s an outline of the punishments associated with copyright infringement in the UK:

Imprisonment and Fines:

For certain offenses, the maximum penalty upon conviction on indictment is ten years’ imprisonment and an unlimited fine. This applies to both online and traditional copyright infringement​.

If someone, in the course of business, makes for sale or hire, imports into the UK (not for private and domestic use), distributes, or possesses with a view to committing any act infringing the copyright, they can face penalties ranging from 3 to 6 months imprisonment and/or a fine of £5,000 to an unlimited fine. In some cases, the imprisonment can extend up to 10 years​.

Specific Offenses:

A person commits an offense if they make an article specifically designed or adapted for making copies of a particular copyright work, or has such an article in their possession, which can lead to 3 months imprisonment and/or a £5,000 fine​.

Infringing copyright in a work by communicating the work to the public, with the knowledge or belief of infringing copyright, and intending to make a gain or cause a loss, can result in 3 months imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine, with a possibility of up to 10 years imprisonment​.

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

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:

Copyright infringement occurs when someone uses copyrighted material without the copyright owner’s permission. Here are some common examples of copyright infringement:

  1. Unauthorized Music Downloading and Sharing:
    • Downloading or sharing music without purchasing it or without the proper license.
  2. Illegal Movie and TV Show Distribution:
    • Distributing movies and TV shows through unauthorized platforms or sharing digital copies without permission.
  3. Using Photos Without Permission:
    • Using photographs found online on your website, blog, or social media without obtaining a license or permission from the photographer.
  4. Plagiarism:
    • Copying someone else’s work (like articles, books, or essays) and passing it off as your own without giving credit can be easily avoided with the help of an online paraphrasing tool.
  5. Software Piracy:
    • Copying, distributing, or using software without a proper license.
  6. Creating Derivative Works Without Permission:
    • Creating new works based on someone else’s copyrighted work (like a remix, adaptation, or translation) without obtaining permission.
  7. Unlicensed Performances:
    • Performing copyrighted works publicly without obtaining the necessary licenses, like playing copyrighted music at a public venue.
  8. Counterfeit Goods:
    • Producing and selling counterfeit goods that infringe on trademarks or copyrights, like fake designer clothing or accessories.
  9. Reproducing and Selling Artwork:
    • Making copies of artwork (like paintings, sculptures, or crafts) and selling them without permission.
  10. Uploading Copyrighted Videos on Platforms:
    • Uploading copyrighted videos on platforms like YouTube without the copyright owner’s permission.
  11. Using Copyrighted Material in Your Own Work:
    • Incorporating copyrighted material into your own work without permission, like using copyrighted images in a presentation.
  12. Distributing Academic Materials:
    • Distributing academic materials like textbooks or research papers without permission.

These examples demonstrate the various forms copyright infringement can take. It’s always important to ensure you have the necessary permissions or licenses when using copyrighted material to avoid legal issues and penalties.

Here are a few famous examples of AI systems that have raised copyright issues recently.

  • Midjourney: This AI image generator created stunning artwork prompting questions around who owns the copyright – the human prompting the image or the AI system. There was debate if Midjourney’s outputs could be copyrighted at all since AI systems are not legal persons.
  • Copilot: GitHub’s AI coding assistant was trained on public and private code prompting copyright concerns. Since Copilot reused code snippets, there were questions around potential copyright infringement.
  • LaMDA: Google’s conversational AI chatbot was accused of plagiarism when it generated passages that were nearly identical to existing texts. This raised questions around how much originality is required for AI outputs to have copyright protections.
  • Music generation systems: AI systems like Jukebox have produced original music leading to debates around copyright ownership. If an AI system autonomously creates a song, who owns the copyright? The company behind the AI or no one at all?
  • Article writing tools: Systems like GPT-3 can generate original articles when prompted potentially infringing on copyrights if they closely paraphrase source texts. Striking the right balance between originality and plagiarism poses challenges.
  • Text and image summarization: Summarization AIs like TLDR leverage copyrighted source content to produce condensed summaries which can toe the line of fair use protections. Determining sufficient originality versus unlawful derivation is not always straightforward.

The rapid advancements in generative AI are challenging existing copyright frameworks and raising important legal and ethical questions about creative works autonomously produced by machines. Clear guidance will be needed as the adoption of these powerful systems continues to accelerate.

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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