We thank Jason Mazzone, the Albert E. Jenner, Jr. Professor of Law at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for contributing this guest post.
Copyfraud—false claims of copyright in public domain works—is a persistent problem. False copyright notices appear on modern reprints of Shakespeare’s plays, Beethoven’s piano scores, greeting card versions of Monet’s Water Lilies, and even the U.S. Constitution. Archives claim blanket copyright in everything in their collections. Vendors of microfilmed versions of historical newspapers assert copyright ownership.
These false copyright claims, which are often accompanied by threatened litigation for reproducing a work without the “owner’s” permission, result in users seeking licenses and paying fees to reproduce works that are free for everyone to use. Copyfraud also interferes with lawful distribution of public domain works.
Increasingly, computer bots are responsible. When Scribd users posted the recent Mueller report—a federal government document that cannot be copyrighted by anyone—the website’s filters flagged the report as copyrighted and took it down.
There are few available remedies for copyfraud. The Copyright Act provides for no civil penalty for falsely claiming ownership of public domain materials. There is also no remedy under the Copyright Act for individuals who wrongly refrain from legal copying or who make payment for permission to copy something they are in fact entitled to use for free. While falsely claiming copyright is technically a criminal offense under the Copyright Act, prosecutions are extremely rare.
A class action lawsuit filed in federal court in Washington now targets Getty Images for selling licenses to images that are in the public domain. The lawsuit alleges that Getty falsely asserts copyrights in public domain images and misleads consumers into believing they must purchase a license from Getty before making use of the images—and that Getty threatens legal action against unauthorized uses of the images it makes available in its database. The lawsuit against Getty asserts claims based on wire fraud under the federal RICO statute and violations of state consumer protection law.
This is new territory and at this early stage of the case it is difficult to assess the likelihood the lawsuit will succeed. Getty is likely to assert that it simply collects images and makes them conveniently available in high-resolution versions and in so doing it does not violate any law. At a minimum, in order to demonstrate fraud, the plaintiffs will need to demonstrate that Getty intentionally misled them into believing it owned copyrights in images and that as a result the plaintiffs paid out an unnecessary copyright licensing fee. Even so, the court might find that there is no legal remedy because Congress did not provide for one in the Copyright Act itself.
I first wrote about copyfraud more than a decade ago in an article published in the NYU Law Review and then in a book, Copyfraud And Other Abuses of Intellectual Property Law (Stanford University Press, 2011). Since then, awareness of the problem has grown. Remedying copyfraud, however, remains a challenge. The lawsuit against Getty might help clarify when existing law provides tools for protecting the public domain. More likely, however, is that the outcome of the case will shed further light on the need for comprehensive reform if copyright is to be kept within its proper limits.