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Use and Copyright Infringement

Does someone who wants to use a copyrighted work have to obtain the copyright owner’s permission?

It depends. Under the "fair use" doctrine of the U.S. copyright statute, it is permissible to use limited portions of a work including quotes for purposes such as commentary, criticism, news reporting and scholarly reports. There are no legal rules permitting the use of a specific number of words, a certain number of musical notes or percentage of a work. Whether a particular use qualifies as fair use depends on all the circumstances. Outside of fair use, permission from the copyright holder is necessary.

How do I get permission to use somebody else’s work?

You can ask for it. If you know who the copyright owner is, you may contact the owner directly. Generally, the name of the copyright owner and the name and address of the publisher appear somewhere on the work (usually on the reverse side of the title page).

TIP: If you are not certain about the ownership or have other related questions, you may wish to request that the Copyright Office conduct a search of its records, or you may search the Copyright Office records yourself.

How can I find out who owns a copyright?

The Copyright Office can provide you with the information available in its records. A search of registrations, renewals and recorded transfers of ownership made before 1978 requires a manual search of the Copyright Office files. Upon request, the Copyright Office staff will search its records at the statutory rate of $75 for each hour. There is no fee if you conduct a search in person at the Copyright Office.

TIP: Copyright registrations made and documents recorded from 1978 to the present are available for searching online at the Copyright Office Web site: www.copyright.gov.

How can I obtain copies of someone else’s work and/or registration certificate?

The Copyright Office will not provide a copy of someone else’s protected work without written authorization from the copyright owner or from his or her designated agent, unless the work is involved in litigation. If there is a lawsuit pending, a litigation statement is required. A certificate of registration for any registered work can be obtained for a fee of $30.

How much do I have to change in order to claim copyright in someone else’s work?

Only the owner of copyright in a work has the right to prepare or to authorize someone else to create a new version of the work. Accordingly, you cannot claim copyright to another’s work, no matter how much you change it, unless you have the owner’s consent.

How does the copyright holder defend its rights?

If someone uses a copyrighted work without authorization, the holder may bring a federal court action for copyright infringement. In cases of willful infringement of a copyright for profit, the U.S. Attorney may initiate a criminal investigation.

What are the possible consequences if a person is found liable for violating a copyright?

In general, the copyright owner has the following remedies available against a copyright infringer:

  • a right to enjoin the infringer from using or making copies of the work;
  • a right to have the court order seizure and destruction or other disposition of the infringing works;
  • a right to actual and/or statutory damages; and
  • a right to recover court costs and reasonable attorney’s fees.

What about criminal liability of the infringer?

A first-time infringer is faced with possible imprisonment for a period of 1 to 5 years, fines ranging from $100,000 to $250,000 or double the gross gain or gross loss of the victim or both imprisonment and fine. A second or subsequent infringer faces imprisonment of up to 10 years, the fines mentioned above or both fine and imprisonment.