Copyrights are used to prevent other individuals from using an originally authored work. Copyright laws are similar to trademark laws that protect logos and brand names.

An item or work that is to be copyrighted should be an original and not a copy or reproduction of property which is already copyrighted. Pursuant to federal laws, copyright entitles the owner of the property to numerous exclusive rights, including:

  • The right to reproduce the copyrighted work;
  • The right to distribute copies of the copyrighted work to the public for sale;
  • The right to perform the copyrighted work;
  • Rights to produce a license that are derived from other copyright materials; and
  • Licensing rights to manufacture and make a product.

What are the Different Types of Copyrighted Works?

There are endless examples of creative works that can be copyrighted. Some examples of creative works include:

  • Recorded or sheet music;
  • Books and novels;
  • Software codes, video games, and CD-ROMs. It is important to note that these works may not be protected if they have already been distributed through a copyleft agreement; and
  • Art, such as:
    • paintings;
    • plays;
    • dance choreography; and
    • sculptures.

What is Copyright Protection?

According to federal laws, an individual obtains a copyright to their work automatically once they have fixed their original work in a tangible medium of expression. An individual must have independently created the work and must not have adapted it from something else.

The individual’s work must also be placed in a sufficiently permanent medium such that other individuals may:

  • Reproduce it;
  • View it; or
  • Communicate it.

Copyright protections apply at the moment the author fixes their work in a tangible form without the author having to take any actions. Once a work obtains copyright protections, the creator or inventor determines who can use the work and for what purposes it may be utilized.

Once a work is protected, no other individual can use that work without the permission of its creator.

What is Copyright Infringement?

Copyright infringement occurs when a party uses copyrighted material of another without the owner’s permission for financial gain. As previously noted, a copyrights covers:

  • Artistic works;
  • Literature; and
  • Performances.

Because these types of materials involve a creative process, it may often occur that one individual’s work influences another individual’s artistic work. It is important to note, however, that a direct appropriation of protected material is against the law and may be punishable by consequences including:

  • Fines;
  • Confiscation of the unauthorized material; and
  • Criminal consequences in some cases.

What is Copyleft?

Copyleft is a concept that provides that certain software and computer programs may be passed on to other users. These users can then be granted access to that software, program, or source code in order to:

  • Use it;
  • Copy it;
  • Reproduce it;
  • Examine it; or
  • Modify it.

These rights are provided under the agreement that any redistributed software of programs are also to be passed along to subsequent users including the same stipulation and distribution terms, or the same copyleft terms.

This allows users to access and use material which may otherwise be restricted because of copyright issues. The word copyleft is a play on words of the term copyright.

Copyleft implies that it is the opposite of a copyright. The laws which govern copyrights place limitations on individuals who do not own the copyright for software or for a program, therefore providing exclusive usage and distribution rights for the copyright holder.

A copyleft provision, in comparison, allows other individuals to use the program so long as they follow the distribution terms included in the agreement. This creates a chain per se of free usage for subsequent individuals.

How Does Copyleft Work?

Copyleft functions by first identifying what software or program is in question. Next, the owner of the copyright can make the program available but they will attach additional legal documents to that program.

These documents are known as copyleft provisions and outline how the program may be used and under what terms it may be distributed. It is important to note that copyleft documents or terms do not constitute an abandonment of copyright privileges but instead are a tailoring or the copyright which allow usage in a very specific manner.

In certain respects, copyleft provisions are similar to copyright licenses because they allow individuals or parties to use copyrighted material. Copyright licenses, however, often involve one-time usages while copyleft has more to do with the rights that are involved with the reusing and reproduction of programs.

Software was often made available for free in the past simply by submitting it into the public domain. The issue with this practice was that any individual can use that software and then alter it, therefore presenting a different program from what was originally intended.

Copyleft provisions are intended to preserve the program while still allowing it to be distributed.

What Are Some Legal Issues Associated with Copyleft?

As noted above, a copyleft provision is not an abandonment of copyright terms. Instead, it is a narrowing of the scope of those terms.

A violation of copyleft provisions may lead to legal disputes and issues, which may involve:

  • Confusion with a contract or disclosure agreement;
  • Actual infringement upon the owner’s copyright privileges;
  • Use of a C that is backwards and enclosed in a circle. The standard C that is enclosed in a circle must be used to denote that the program or software is, in fact, copyrighted. The backwards C does not have any legal effect; or
  • Failure to follow the copyleft distribution terms.

The legal consequences for a dispute involving copyleft provisions may include an award of monetary damages for any lost profits which resulted from the violation. In addition, the failure to follow the copyleft distribution terms may effectively break the chain of the valid redistribution of the program, therefore, limiting access for future users to that program.

A violation will, of course, depend upon the individual copyleft terms as well as the laws of the state where the violation occurred.

Is Copyleft a Defense to Copyright Infringement?

Yes, copyleft may be used as a defense to copyright infringement. Computer programs and software which have been distributed in accordance with a copyleft agreement are not protected by any subsequent attempt to enforce a copyright.

When a copyleft agreement is enacted, the creation of that program which is being distributed through the copyleft agreement forfeits certain rights to that intellectual property.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Assistance with Copyleft Issues?

Copyleft agreements are considered relatively new. These agreements are specific to the software industry and may not apply to other copyrighted works, for example, literature or music.

You may find it helpful to consult with a copyright lawyer in your area if you have any questions, issues, or concerns that involve copyleft. Your attorney can advise you of the laws which apply to your issue.

If you are required to file a lawsuit and appear in court to resolve your issue, your attorney will represent you during those appearances. If you are seeking damages due to being financially harmed by a copyleft issue, your attorney can advise you regarding the possible compensation you may be able to receive.

If you have been accused of violating a copyleft provision, your attorney is best equipped to demonstrate to the court any defenses which may be available to you and fight to ensure you are not required to pay compensation you do not owe.