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Copyfraud is a term used by Jason Mazzone, an Associate Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School, to describe the use of false claims of copyright to attempt to control works not under one's legal control.[1]:1028



Mazzone describes copyfraud as:

  • Claiming copyright ownership of public domain material.[1]:1038
  • Imposition by a copyright owner of restrictions beyond what the law allows.[1]:1047
  • Claiming copyright ownership on the basis of ownership of copies or archives.[1]:1052
  • Claiming copyright ownership by publishing a public domain work in a different medium.[1]:1044-45

Mazzone argues that copyfraud is usually successful because there are few and weak laws criminalizing false statements about copyrights and lax enforcement of such laws and because few people are competent enough to give legal advice on the copyright status of commandeered material.[1]:1029-30

In the U.S. Copyright Act, only two sections deal with improper assertions of copyright on public domain materials: Section 506(c) criminalizes fraudulent uses of copyright notices and Section 506(e) punishes knowingly making a false representation of a material fact in the application for copyright registration.[1]:1036 Section 512(f) additionally punishes using the safe harbor provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to remove material the issuer knows is not infringing. But apart from these two sections, the U.S. Copyright Act does not provide for any civil penalties for claiming copyrights on public domain materials, nor does the Act prescribe relief for individuals who refrain from copying or pay for copying permission to an entity that engages in copyfraud.[1]:1030

Section 202 of the Australian Copyright Act 1968, which imposes penalties for 'groundless threats of legal proceedings', provides a cause of action of any false claims of copyright infringement. This should include false claims of copyright ownership of public domain material, or claims to impose copyright restrictions beyond those permitted by the law.

Legal scholar Paul J. Heald, in a 1993 paper published in the Journal of Intellectual Property Law,[2] explored the possibility that payment demands for spurious copyrights might be resisted under a number of commerce-law theories: (1) Breach of warranty of title; (2) unjust enrichment; (3) fraud, and (4) false advertising. Heald cited a case in which the first of these theories was used successfully in a copyright context: Tams-Witmark Music Library v. New Opera Company.[3] In this case

an opera company purchased the right to perform the opera The Merry Widow for $50,000 a year. After a little more than a year of performances, the company discovered that the work had passed into the public domain several years before due to a failure on the part of the copyright holder to renew the copyright. It ceased paying royalties, and after being sued by the owner of the abandoned copyright, counterclaimed for damages in the amount paid to the owner on a breach of warranty/failure of consideration theory. The trial court awarded the opera company $50,500 in damages, and the court of appeals affirmed the judgement, finding that The Merry Widow "passed, finally, completely and forever into the public domain and became freely available to the unrestricted use of anyone....New Opera's pleas of breach of warranty and total failure of consideration were established, and by undisputed proof."


  • In 1984, Universal Studios sued Nintendo to stop them from profiting on their new Donkey Kong arcade game, on the basis that Donkey Kong was too similar to King Kong, which they owned. In the end, Nintendo's lawyers showed that Universal had argued against RKO General in 1975 that King Kong was in the public domain. Nintendo also won the appeal, a counterclaim, and a further appeal.[4][5]
  • In 2003, electronic voting machine manufacturer Diebold, Inc. threatened two Swarthmore College students with charges of copyright infringement for posting some emails from Diebold's archives that discussed problems with its machines and issued takedown notices to several ISPs hosting links to the emails. One such ISP, the Online Policy Group (OPG), asserted on First Amendment (i.e., free speech) and public interest grounds that these links were not infringing and sued Diebold for issuing bogus takedown notices (an offence under DMCA ยง 512(f)). Diebold were ordered to pay damages of $125,000 to the students and OPG.[6]
  • In 2004, the SCO Group sued Novell, Inc. claiming that it owned the copyrights to the Unix operating system and Novell had infringed on its copyrights by adding Unix code to the Linux operating system. In August 2007, a court found that SCO's copyright claims were false and Novell in fact owned the Unix copyrights.[7]
  • In 2006, Michael Crook filed fraudulent DMCA claims against sites critical of him. The material he claimed copyright on was screenshots of his appearance on the Fox News Channel show Hannity & Colmes. In a March 2007 settlement, Crook agreed to withdraw the claims, apologize to his victims, and to limit his future copyright claims to material which he was legally allowed to file claims for.[8]
  • The American Antiquarian Society web site states that images of its archived printed materials from the 18th and 19th centuries (now automatically in the public domain due to age) "must be licensed by the society in consequence of its proprietary rights."[1]:1053 [9]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Mazzone, Jason (2006). "Copyfraud". New York University Law Review 81 (3): 1026.  
  2. ^ Paul J. Heald, "Payment Demands for Spurious Copyrights: Four Causes of Action", Journal of Intellectual Property Law, vol. 1, 1993-1994, p. 259.
  3. ^ 81 N.E. 2d 70 (NY 1948)
  4. ^ United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit (October 4, 1984). Universal City Studios, Inc. v. Nintendo Co., Ltd.
  5. ^ United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit (July 15, 1986). Universal City Studios, Inc. v. Nintendo Co., Ltd.
  6. ^ "Online Policy Group v. Diebold | Electronic Frontier Foundation". Retrieved 2009-07-19.  
  7. ^ "Novell Wins Right to Unix Copyrights". 2007-08-10.,135858/article.html. Retrieved 2009-07-19.  
  8. ^ "Diehl v. Crook | Electronic Frontier Foundation". Retrieved 2009-07-19.  
  9. ^ "Rights and Reproductions at the American Antiquarian Society". 2009-04-16. Retrieved 2009-07-19.  

External links



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