In the modern connected world, holding on to your rights as a creator can be like trying to grab onto an electric eel. You have to know what you’re doing, or your rights can slip away faster than you can grab them. You can end up the victim of the theft of intellectual property.
What are you going to do when you have to enforce your own copyright interests in a complex world? Keep reading to find out!
What is Copyright?
Copyright is a legal concept that determines who owns and controls intellectual property. It is a right granted to an entity [like a person or a corporation] to have certain control over creative works for a certain period of time.
The most common type of copyright and the easiest to understand is the right of the author to retain control over the writings that they produce. If you write something, generally you own the copyright to that work. Copyrights can be transferred so that writers can be paid for the work they produce.
Copyright law extends to all types of creative content and intellectual property. Without copyrights, movies, TV, books, art and just about everything else you love about the modern world would STINK! The intellectual property theft definition is the reason creative professionals are safe to create.
You don’t have to look for intellectual property theft examples further than a major movie studio. They spend millions of dollars to make a movie and need a way to recoup the cost of creating the product. Copyrights prevent other people from legally copying or distributing the movie without the studio’s permission.
History of the Theft of Intellectual Property
Copyright laws came into effect around the end of the middle ages in Europe. Before that, there wasn’t any kind of concept of a person “owning” the intellectual property contained within a copyright. In fact, copying a book was considered a scholarly act, there were no intellectual property theft cases.
The idea of a “scribe”, or a person who could read and write, often really just meant copying a text. This word would transmute into the word esquire which means “lawyer”.
In the age before the printing press, each manuscript had to be meticulously copied by hand. It might take weeks or months for a monk to produce one manuscript!
With the invention of the printing press, humanity finally had the ability to mass produce written works. The first printing presses were used to print Bibles, but it wasn’t long after that commercial works began to be produced for sale.
Writers and publishers began to steal the popular works of other writers and sell them. In the United Kingdom, the Licensing of the Press Act 1662 was a censorship law that allowed the government to determine if anything was “seditious” or “treasonous”. This was the first step in the process of the government saying what was legal or illegal to produce in the press.
All legal books had to be brought to London and registered with the Stationer’s Company, which was authorized by the Crown to keep a list of all the books published in the country. People began suing for intellectual property theft since their work was then registered with the Crown.
In 1709, the first real copyright law was enacted in England. Known as the “Statue of Anne”, it gave anyone who applied the legal ability to profit from written works and to enforce those rights in common law court. It made it illegal to publish a book in the Kingdom without the permission of the copyright holder.
However, despite this law and similar laws in other countries, copyright laws generally ended at the border of the nation where they were created. This led to a situation where “pirate publishers” would simply produce copies of popular books written by authors in other nations.
If a book was popular in England, it would be published in Germany by rogue publishers who weren’t connected to the actual writers. The reverse happened to Continental authors in the United Kingdom. It soon became apparent that it was in everybody’s interest that international copyright laws would have to come into effect.
The Berne Convention
The Berne Convention was initially signed in Berne, Switzerland in 1887. It has become the de facto international copyright treaty with almost the entire world in agreement. The Soviet Union signed in 1947, but the United States and Great Britain didn’t sign the convention until 1987!
The basic thrust of the Berne convention is that copyright holders don’t need to put an explicit copyright on their works for the weight of copyright law to come into effect. Previously, works would have to be registered in a country’s copyright office in order for rights to be enforceable in court.
That meant that prior to 1987, you could basically steal anything written in the Soviet Union and publish it in America unless someone had walked it down to the United States Copyright Office in Washington D.C. It was considered something of a “power play” by America and Great Briton against the rest of the world.
Since America was the biggest market for copyrighted works, it was important for writers, publishers, and creators everywhere to register their copyrights in America first.
US Law Prior to 2009
The United States stubbornly refused to accept the basic premise of the Berne Convention all the way up until 2009. Until that time, copyright had to be explicitly registered with the US copyright office, or at least explicitly demonstrated on the document being copyrighted.
This was usually done with the (C) symbol being printed on the copyrighted material.
Old Wife’s Tale
If you know any writers, you’ve probably heard of the trick of securing a copyright by mailing it to yourself certified mail. This associates the “postmark” with the writing. If you mail it to yourself prior to the publication date, that would somehow constitute registering the document with the post office.
It should be noted that this technique has NEVER stood up in court on its own! Yes, this has been done in the past to prove a copyright, but in those cases, it was still one person’s word against the other. The postmark itself doesn’t prove anything and has never won a court case, by itself.
If you bring a copyright claim, and the envelope thing is the ONLY evidence you have of a copyright, you’ll lose against the other party. This might be if the author died, or the claimant for some other reason couldn’t provide any other evidence to substantiate their claim.
Since 2009, the United States has accepted the full commitments under the Berne Convention.
Today, even in the United States, a copyright can be implicit and implied. You no longer have to put the (C) symbol on written material to have a valid copyright claim. If you are the creator of the product, you own the copyright without any filing anything.
Enforcing the 99%
In 2018, most examples of intellectual property theft cases are web related. In terms of stealing copyrighted material, it just doesn’t pay to try and publish someone else’s book. But when it comes to digital material, it’s pretty easy to get ripped off.
You’ll need a good attorney familiar with copyright law to file a real case, but the lawyer you already have can use the most effective tool an attorney has in his arsenal, the “Cease and Desist Letter”. A “Cease and Desist”, or a C&D letter, is a formal demand from an attorney to make one party stop what they are doing, or else!
The vast majority of copyright infringements can be solved with a C&D. Most types of infringement fall under that category of “I thought I could get away with it”, and a notice from a lawyer that you’re not getting away with it usually does the trick.
The great thing about a C&D is that it costs nothing to do and it generally works. But if it doesn’t then you’re actually going to have to file a lawsuit, and that can be another giant can of worms indeed!
The first step is to gather all the evidence that you are, in fact, being infringed upon and bring it to a qualified attorney with experience in copyright enforcement like The Law Offices of B. Bush. This could include hard drives, letters, contracts or whatever else you happen to have.
You should explore with both your attorney and your accountant the feasibility of filing a lawsuit. The truth is that most people who steal copyrighted material are lawsuit-proof. You can’t get blood out of a stone.
If some college kid with $25 in his bank account re-posts your novel, you could spend thousands of dollars in litigation costs and foreclose on his 25 bucks. It might be better to chalk it up to good publicity!
It’s up to the copyright owner to enforce their own rights and protect themselves against the theft of intellectual property. You need a competent attorney to help you navigate the intricacies of the law. There are dishonest actors out there, lurking on the internet, who are willing to steal your stuff.
Don’t let them! Protect yourself with a skilled lawyer who has the reputation, experience, and ability to get the job done right. Check out our blog for more information on finding the best attorney for your business needs.