Is Your Company’s Website a Copyright Lawsuit Waiting to Happen?

Copyright attorneyFailing to properly secure ownership or to license pictures and other intellectual property results in federal lawsuit against Michigan business.

A photographer sued a local law firm for copyright infringement. The suit alleges the photograph was used on the company’s website and marketing materials without permission. Specifically, photographer Tom Hussey sued the law firm Glenn R. Matecun, P.C. for copyright infringement in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan on January 26, 2018.

The suit, Case No. 5:18-cv-10316, further alleges that the Matecun law firm copied Hussey’s
copyrighted Work from the internet in order to advertise, market and promote its legal services, including on the business website. An answer or response to the lawsuit has yet to be filed.

Overview of Copyright Protections

Under the federal Copyright Act, copyright protection is extended to “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression … from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.” Examples of what may be copyrighted include, but is not limited to:

  1. literary works;
  2. musical works, including any accompanying words;
  3. dramatic works, including any accompanying music;
  4. pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works;
  5. motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
  6. sound recordings; and
  7. architectural works.

In our experience representing website owners or businesses engaged in social media marketing, pictures, graphics, website content, and sounds are frequent types of intellectual property that create copyright infringement risks and liabilities.

What You Can do to Protect your Business from Copyright Infringement

Unfortunately, the above case of infringement is all too common for businesses. This is especially true, as we previously discussed, in social media marketing campaigns. And as the above case illustrates, copyright infringement and other intellectual property violations often result in costly litigation. But infringement can frequently be avoided with proper planning and understanding of copyright law.

First, companies are presumed to have copyright in content created by their employees. Specifically, the “work made for hire” doctrine of the Copyright Act of 1976 holds that the employer owns the copyright in a work prepared by an employee within his or her scope of employment, unless a written assignment stating otherwise is in place.

But where a company is using content created by non-employees, proper permission must be secured to avoid copyright infringement claims. And it is important for businesses to stress this point to its management and employees who have responsibility for marketing or social media campaigns.

Second, understand protections that exist to protect or limit your company’s liability for copyright infringement. A signficant protection involves Section 512 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). This section can immunize online service providers from all but limited injunctive relief for copyright infringement claims. And the DMCA’s broad application may extend to any company running a public website or web server. We routinely work with businesses conducting e-commerce and website owners to incorporate DMCA protections into their websites and terms of use.

For more information about how to legally market and promote your business, including protecting your company from copyright violations, contact attorney Jason Shinn. Since 2000, Mr. Shinn has worked with business owners to eliminate or reduce business risks in the areas of employment, intellectual property, and business litigation. This experience includes representing clients in copyright, trade secret, and trademark infringement claims.