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Copyright is a kind of intellectual property right that belongs to the creators of original works. Copyright owners can control how people can use and share their works while they own that copyright. If someone uses copyright without the owner’s permission, then that is usually copyright infringement, and penalties can be severe. So, what happens if your employee infringes copyright? Your options will depend significantly on your circumstances, so you must engage legal counsel as early on as possible. However, this article will explain copyright infringement for some background guidance and suggest what you should do if your employee has infringed copyright legislation.

What Is Copyright?

Intellectual property rights refer to the exclusive ownership a person has over their ideas or expressions. Copyright is one of these exclusive rights that usually belong to the creator of an original work. It exists as soon as a creator creates a work. It applies for their lifetime and 50 years after their death in most cases.

Original work does not necessarily mean “unique”, but instead means “not copied”. Note that copyright only protects how you express or communicate an idea, not necessarily the idea itself. 

There are criteria for works that copyright can apply to. They must be one of the following:

  • literary, musical, dramatic, or artistic pieces;
  • sound recordings;
  • films;
  • communication works; and
  • typographical arrangements of published editions.

Therefore, copyright can apply to works such as:

  • novels;
  • plays;
  • musical pieces;
  • songs;
  • software;
  • paintings; or
  • reports.

If you think your employee has infringed copyright, you need to familiarise yourself with its conditions and application.

What Qualifies as Copyright Infringement?

A party that owns the copyright of a work can control how others use or share their works. They have the exclusive right to do various activities that other parties cannot without authorisation. They can also licence these rights to other parties. These restricted activities include:

  • copying the work;
  • publishing or selling copies of the work to the general public;
  • performing/showing the work in public;
  • adapting the work, or performing any of the above actions with an adaptation;
  • disclosing the work to the public; or
  • giving another party permission to do the above.

If you or your employee does any of these activities without the copyright owner’s permission, then you are likely infringing their copyright.

For example, if your employee copies another company’s software and sells it to other people as their own, that would qualify as copyright infringement.

A copyright owner can choose to take legal action against anyone that infringes their right, with civil remedies available. A court will determine the appropriate punishment depending on the severity of the circumstances. This may include a $150,000 fine or up to five years in prison.

Am I at Fault if My Employee Infringes Copyright?

If your employee infringes copyright, your responsibility will largely depend on the facts and context of the infringement. If an employee has infringed your copyright, then you have legal options available if the case is severe.

However, in the case where your employee infringed someone else’s copyright, your liability will depend on a few things, including whether:

  • you knew about the copyright infringement;
  • the employee infringed copyright to do their job;
  • you directed them to do the action that led to copyright infringement;
  • they were acting on your express or implied instructions; and
  • there were any other causal connections.

If your employee’s copyright infringement was connected to them doing their job at your business, then you need to consider your legal options.

What Should I Do?

If an employee has infringed your copyright, inform them of this fact and ask them to cease. If they refuse, then seek legal advice about what your options are for civil remedies.

In the case where your employee has infringed someone else’s copyright, then you need to seek the legal advice of an intellectual property attorney. They can: 

  • review the facts of the situation;
  • determine whether you or your employee did actually infringe copyright; and
  • provide counsel regarding your options.

Try to get as much information and evidence as you can to get a clear picture of the situation. Some acts do not constitute copyright infringement, so if you can establish that your employee was only doing one of these permitted acts, then they may not be liable. These acts can include:

  • using/copying the work for criticism, review, news reporting, research, or private study;
  • limited copying/using the work for a specific educational purpose;
  • making a Braille copy of the work, under specific circumstances; or
  • making a backup of a computer program.

Key Takeaways

If your employee infringes copyright legislation, then the copyright owner can pursue them in court. When the employee has infringed copyright while doing their job, then you should seek legal advice regarding your options as their employer. If you would like more information or help with copyright matters at your business, contact LegalVision’s IP lawyers on 0800 005 570 or fill out the form on this page.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is copyright infringement?

Copyright infringement refers to when an unauthorised person copies, uses or sells another person’s copyrighted works. Penalties can include fines and jail time.

Do I own the copyright my employee creates?

If your employee creates copyright as a part of their job, then in most cases, you will own that copyright. However, they will still retain moral rights.

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