Copyright issues can become extremely complex (and potentially costly) if you attempt to pursue them without qualified legal help. Many people confuse copyright with other intellectual property concepts like trademarks and patents. Even if you understand copyright laws and how they protect creators and their original works, it can be very difficult to understand exactly how far those protections extend.
Subjective definitions for terms like “parody” and “educational use” can easily blur the lines between fair use and copyright infringement. It can also be difficult to effectively delineate between concepts like copyright and trademark in certain cases.
As an example, copyright protects your favorite author’s new book. However, if that book is part of a hit series that has inspired blockbuster Hollywood films, the main character’s name and the name of the series itself may very well also be protected by separate registered trademarks. Those assets, while integral elements of the book, cannot be protected by the book’s copyright. It only protects the book as a tangible and self-contained work of artistic merit and not its individual elements (e.g., its title) when taken out of that context.
The two concepts—trademark and copyright—are separate, legally speaking, but often interconnected. A trained legal professional is your best resource for clearing up this sort of confusion.
The first step to resolving a potential copyright issue before it becomes a legal liability is to identify and contact the copyright holder.
If you want to use someone else’s copyrighted work, there are only a few limited “fair use” exceptions that allow you to do so without licensing the work from the original author (or whatever party currently holds the copyright):
Many copyright disputes are centered on derivative works. A “derivative work” is any work of art or media that uses an existing work, in whole or in part, in the process of creating a new work. An example would be an experimental film that creatively re-uses classic movie scenes or an electronic dance song using samples previously recorded by other musicians. There are certain media formats, like clip shows, where “new” works are almost entirely derived from previously created media. In those cases, the line between fair use and copyright protection is fairly clear.
A derivative work that merely replays other people’s clips is usually not considered to have artistic merit. To remain legal, the creator must obtain a copyright license for each clip used. This is much different than a producer who lifts a single kick drum sample from a popular song and then heavily edits it before working it into their own song—a clear example of fair use.
For someone to legally create derivative works—i.e., to use a portion of a copyrighted work, such as a sample from a song, in their own, new work without obtaining a license from the valid copyright holder—certain conditions must be met. The new work either has to have merit as a work of parody, or the copyrighted material must be significantly altered or used in an extremely limited capacity. A popular quote used as a reference to a well-known copyrighted work would be considered fair use. However, lifting an entire paragraph from a well-known novel for the same purpose would not be protected use. The exception would be parody and satire, where larger, recognizable pieces of copyrighted works can be used in creating derivative works.
If you are uncertain whether you need to seek a licensing deal with a copyright holder to create a derivative work, then there is a good chance you need to wait until you have legal protections in place.
Because copyright law is governed by federal statutes rather than administered on a state level, the procedures for dealing with copyright issues are the same no matter where in the United States you find yourself. For instance, a book written in Colorado is automatically protected from copyright infringement in New York, and vice versa.
There are online databases that allow you to search for information about authorship and copyright holders. While these can be useful tools, copyrights are often transferred or sold. This information may not always reflect the current, active copyright holder.
The only way to know exactly who legally holds a particular copyright is to get your information directly from the United States Copyright Office. Contacting the publisher of a particular work can also be helpful in gathering accurate copyright information. Having an intellectual property lawyer with you when you reach out to these entities lets them know that you are legitimate. It also ensures that you are following the correct procedures and are not inadvertently breaking any rules or norms.
A: One of the most effective ways to get reliable and up-to-date information about the holder of a particular copyright is to reach out directly to a person or entity who would know via phone, e-mail, or social media. People and places to contact include the work’s original author, the current publisher of the work, and the United States Copyright Office. While a web search can be a good place to start, you cannot rely on free internet records to be up to date.
A: When you cannot locate a copyright owner yourself, your best option is to hire an intellectual property lawyer who can pursue the matter further with the United States Copyright Office. Depending on why you are seeking copyright information for a particular piece, a qualified copyright attorney can help you gather the information you need. This can keep your project on track when you try to clear tricky or obscure copyrighted materials for a derivative work.
A: While an author is typically the automatic copyright holder of any new work, it is not so clear in practice. An “author” can be an individual, or it can be an entity such as a business for the purposes of copyright law. Copyrights can also be sold, including from individuals to businesses. Lastly, if you create an artistic work in the course of your employment, it is very possible that the terms of your job contract automatically relinquish copyright protections to your employer. Most companies that produce creative works have such contracts with their creative employees.
A: There is, unfortunately, no single, user-friendly website or other resource that houses complete information about every registered copyright. Finding accurate copyright information involves contacting many different sources. The best way to ensure that you are getting accurate copyright information is to work with an experienced intellectual property law firm such as Four Reasons Legal of Colorado.
If you are having issues finding the current copyright holder for a particular work, the copyright experts at Four Reasons Legal can help. From our main offices in Denver, we are available to help individuals and businesses throughout Colorado navigate sensitive and complex intellectual property issues. Reach out today to see how we can help.