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What is Copyright Theft?

Daphne Mallory
Daphne Mallory

Copyright theft, known as copyright infringement, is the unauthorized and substantial use of someone’s or some entity’s copyrighted material that is not in the public domain. The author of the work, who is the creator, must first give permission in order for users to avoid copyright theft. The material is often called the work or works, and it has to be expressed in a tangible form, such as music or a video on a website. Ideas and other intangibles are not copyrighted material, even if the originator of those ideas claims to have a copyright. Uses of copyrighted material include reproduction, distribution, and performance.

A copyright is a right of the creator to control how his or her work is used and who has the right to use it. Copyright laws often exist to ensure that artists, writers, and others receive compensation for their work. Copyright theft often robs them of the right to pay and is often punishable under national copyright laws. At the same time, copyright laws allow the fair use of copyrighted material, where no permission from the creator is required. Parts of the copyrighted material can often be used without knowledge or prior authorization from the creator for specified purposes, such as for news stories, commentary, and classroom use.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

Works in the public domain are exempt from copyright theft, because the authors no longer own the copyrights. Most copyrights expire, and when they do, those works often fall into the public domain. Those works can often be freely used by anyone, even to make a profit. For example, publishers can copy and republish books that are in the public domain and sell them. The expiration of copyrights depends on when the creator died and when the works were created, and public domain laws vary by jurisdiction.

A substantial use of copyrighted material results in copyright theft. If an insignificant amount of the material is used, this often doesn’t meet the test of copyright infringement, but there is no clear standard used by the courts. A creator bringing a copyright infringement lawsuit in most cases also has to show that the user had access to the original material. Copyright enforcement can consist of stopping users from using the material further, removing materials from the marketplace, and making the user pay for damages. A plaintiff may also seek additional damages for copyright theft that was not shown to be inadvertent copyright infringement.

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