Copyright Law in the Digital Age

How copy and paste can run afoul of copyright protections

By Amy White | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on December 28, 2023 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorneys Dale Cendali, George L. Graff and Joseph Petersen

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Say you come across a book review in The New York Times that your friend must read, and you copy and paste it into an email. No problem, right?

Not necessarily.

“It’s so easy to copy and send,” says lawyer Joseph Petersen, a New York intellectual property lawyer. “But if that article is behind a pay wall, for example, that’s infringement.”

Most of us don’t think twice about copyrighted works, either. “The apprehensive consumer is the exception to the rule,” Petersen agrees. “What I would say to them is sure, be appropriately concerned. Copyright law is a strict liability offense, but that’s not to say that there are no defenses, like fair use, for example.”

You could theoretically get into a lot of trouble because statutory damages for copyright infringement… can be as much as $150,000 per infringed work. As a practical matter, though, often the concern is stopping the infringement and informing people that this is a violation and trying to prevent it from happening again.

Dale Cendali

Tip 1: Avoid Illegal Uploads

George Graff, an intellectual property lawyer at George L. Graff Dispute Resolution Service in New York City, offers this advice: Pay attention to all facets of the content and creative works you intend to share through digital technology.

“A very common sort of everyday infringement I see is that when someone uploads content—I’m speaking of YouTube in particular—and it’s not so much what’s occurring on the screen as the copyrighted [sound recording] that is usually playing in the background.”

Both attorneys agree that while the “Internet police” generally are not tracking down infringers, consumers shouldn’t be quick to distribute copyrighted material that doesn’t belong to them just because they can. There is a potential for big-time damages to copyright holders whose exclusive rights have been infringed.

“You could theoretically get into a lot of trouble because statutory damages for copyright infringement if it is found to be willful, can be as much as $150,000 per infringed work,” says Kirkland & Ellis intellectual property litigation lawyer Dale Cendali. “As a practical matter, though, often the concern is stopping the infringement and informing people that this is a violation and trying to prevent it from happening again.”

A very common sort of everyday infringement I see is that when someone uploads content—I’m speaking of YouTube in particular—and it’s not so much what’s occurring on the screen as the copyrighted [sound recording] that is usually playing in the background.

George L. Graff

Tip 2: Avoid Illegal Downloads

Uploading copyrighted content is one thing, but illegal downloads have forced a tide change in standard industry business models.

“You can’t sue every kid for stealing one song,” Graff says. “So instead, business models now are directed toward streaming or selling. iTunes led the pack in selling music. Just let the people buy the one song they want instead of the whole album… Now the Spotifys and the Netflixes of the world wield great economic power.”

Graff says the software industry is getting into the game, too.

“Microsoft is essentially converting from a stand-alone product to a subscription-based product,” he says. “For $100 a year, you get five copies of Office, the latest version constantly kept up to date on all your devices. This is a way to sell software that strongly discourages pirating because it renders a pirated copy obsolete quickly.”

The apprehensive consumer is the exception to the rule. What I would say to them is sure, be appropriately concerned. Copyright law is a strict liability offense, but that’s not to say that there are no defenses, like fair use, for example.

— Joseph Petersen

There are bigger issues at stake, too. “Consider the goal with copyright law,” Petersen says. “Not only does it rightfully reward the authors of content, the very purpose of copyright law is to continually promote the progress of arts and sciences.”

Here’s Cendali’s pre-click checklist:

  1. Are you posting something that is your original work or is it somebody else’s work?
  2. Do you have permission to use it?
  3. Are you using it in a way—as in a parody or to make comment—that could be excused by fair use?
  4. If it becomes well-known, will you have any copyright issues?

Graff’s final tip? “If you do try streaming services, like Netflix, which I myself enjoy, you must watch The West Wing in its entirety,” he says. “It’s fantastic.”

Get an Attorney’s Help to Protect Your Intellectual Property Rights

Whether you have questions about using creative work or someone has used your work without permission, and you’re considering legal action, reach out to an experienced intellectual property law attorney. Visit the Super Lawyers directory to find an IP lawyer in your area.

For more information on U.S. copyright law, see our intellectual property law overview.

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