4 most famous copyright cases

Like patents and trademarks, copyrights are a form of intellectual property protection. In fact, copyrights are used to protect works of authorship that are original and are fixed in a tangible form. This means that copyrights can be used to protect drawings, photographs, compositions, audio recordings, books, films, plays, computer programs, blog posts and additional creations.

In order to obtain and enforce a copyright, it is essential to have the copyright recorded with the U.S. Copyright Office. The author of the created work typically is the owner of the copyright, though it is possible to assign ownership to an individual or entity, such as if the work was created in the course of the creator’s employment.

Moreover, it is possible for a copyright owner to grant permission to others to use all or a portion of their original work. Such agreements may involve the payment of fees to the copyright owner to compensate them for their work.

Unfortunately, many people and organizations don’t understand the finer points of U.S. copyright law. This may lead them to inadvertently use something that does not belong to them. Examples of this may include quoting from someone else’s book without citing the source or using a portion of another’s song in a sound recording. When a person features a photograph on their website that was taken by someone else, this also may be copyright infringement if permission was not obtained.

While some cases of copyright infringement are accidental or unintentional, others are not so innocent. Occasionally, someone will deliberately use all or a portion of someone else’s work and pass it off as their own.

Whether the infringement is accidental or intentional, the responsibility for enforcing their rights falls to the copyright owner.

Some copyright disputes become so heated that they turn into litigation. Other cases manage to avoid a trial, but they still undergo an intense and very public battle to determine who unfairly borrowed from someone else’s work.

Here is a look at some of the most famous copyright cases.

David Bowie and Queen vs. Vanilla Ice

The music industry is rife with copyright disputes. Songs may be protected in two ways with copyrights. These protections include coverage for the composition and for the sound recording of the composition. If someone wants to legally use any part of a song that is protected by copyright, then it may be necessary to obtain two licenses from the copyright owner. A sync license may be granted for the composition while a master-use license is needed for the sound recording. Accordingly, it may be necessary to obtain the permission of the songwriter, the performer, the record label and the producer.

When Vanilla Ice released his song “Ice Ice Baby” in 1990, listeners couldn’t help but hear that the bass line was incredibly similar to that used in the 1981 collaboration between David Bowie and Queen entitled “Under Pressure.”

Lawyers working for Bowie and Queen threatened to sue Vanilla Ice for copyright infringement. Vanilla Ice responded by saying that the bass lines were different as his melody included an additional note.

However, the difference was considered inconsequential, and he was sued. The case was settled out of court. While the amount of the settlement was not made publicly available, experts speculate that paying Bowie and Queen for a license would have been far less expensive than paying the out of court settlement proved to be.

Similar examples are found throughout the industry. One of the earliest of these occurred in the 1960s when Chuck Berry’s representatives accused the Beach Boys of plagiarizing one of Berry’s songs. The allegations centered on the Beach Boys’ song “Surfin’ USA,” which Berry accused of being a copy of his 1958 release “Sweet Little Sixteen.”

This one didn’t come down to a lawsuit, but it certainly established a precedent for the need for artists to protect their work.

Star Wars vs. Battlestar Galactica

If you were a fan of science fiction living in the late 1970s, it was a great time to be alive. With the release of the first Star Wars film in 1977, sci-fi films and television series took the world by storm.

Following Star Wars’ success in 1978, the first episode of Battlestar Galactica aired on television. From a ratings perspective, it performed fairly well. It only lasted for one season that consisted of 24 episodes. It seemed that the series was destined to be quickly forgotten.

However, the short-lived television series did make an impression on executives at Twentieth Century-Fox, the studio responsible for Star Wars. Fox sued Universal Pictures because of Battlestar Galactica, claiming that the series was clear copyright infringement on Star Wars.

In all, Fox listed more than 30 similarities that they alleged were infringing. The case lasted much longer than the television series, dragging on for half a decade only to be settled out of court. This left the allegations largely unresolved.

Why did the two sides settle without going to trial? It likely is because Fox would have had a difficult time proving that Battlestar Galactica was truly infringing rather than just being a copycat. Lawyers representing Star Wars would have had to prove that the elements at the heart of the case were original to Fox, that all of those elements qualified for copyright protection and that the TV series copied those elements.

Simply put, Fox had an uphill battle ahead of them. Settling out of court probably made a lot of sense for both parties.

James Dyson vs. Hoover

Not every copyright case is about an artistic endeavor like a song or a film. Sometimes, these cases are more technology driven.

This was the case in the 2001 legal matter between inventor James Dyson and vacuum cleaner maker Hoover.

Dyson had gained fame as an inventor for a bag-less vacuum that relied on two cyclones, one to pick up small objects and one to pick up larger items.

In the case, Dyson alleged that Hoover had infringed his design with their Triple Vortex model. Hoover argued that the technology behind Dyson’s Dual Cyclone was already well known in the industry, but the court didn’t buy it.

Instead, the court decided that Hoover had willfully copied the Dyson technology. At the same time, the court preserved Hoover’s right to use the “VORTEX” trademark on its vacuums.

Clearly, copyright cases can be extremely complicated, and they can spill over into trademark and patent territory as well.

Cariou vs. Prince

Here’s an interesting case that arose in 2011. Appropriation artist Richard Prince made changes to more than 40 images culled from a photography book by Patrick Cariou. Prince claimed that he had created something new with the photos, which meant that his work fell under the fair use doctrine. Cariou called the work copyright infringement.

The court ultimately decided for Cariou. According to the judge, the changes that Prince made to the photographs were not significant enough to change their meaning.

Prince appealed the ruling, and eventually won, with the court finding that the appropriated art had a different nature and target audience than the original works.

Should You Register a Copyright for Your Work?

Obtaining a registered copyright is a much less arduous process than obtaining a patent or registering a trademark. Nonetheless, a registered copyright gives the owner some incredibly useful and powerful tools should their rights ever be infringed.

Litigation is risky, and the outcome is never guaranteed. Accordingly, when infringement is suspected, it is always best to explore various avenues of resolution that don’t necessarily involve going to trial.

If you would like to register your work for a copyright or are concerned that someone has infringed your intellectual property rights, contact Williams IP Law for advice. We offer free initial consultations to new clients.

Can Monkeys Sue for Copyright Infringement?

People and animals have always had special relationships. State and federal laws are designed to provide protection to animals and to ensure their humane treatment. One court recently found that these relationships do not necessarily give animals the right to sue people in civil court.

Naruto “the Monkey” vs. David Slater

An unusual case began in 2011 when David Slater, a wildlife photographer, traveled to Sulawesi, Indonesia. He was on assignment, but there was a moment when he left his camera unattended. Naruto, a crested macaque, was nearby and seemed unable to resist temptation. Working quickly, he snapped several shots, including a series of selfies that is now known as the “Monkey Selfies.”

Slater was delighted when he saw the monkey’s work. In partnership with Wildlife Personalities, Ltd., the monkey selfies were published in a book. Slater and Wildlife Personalities are identified as copyright owners in the publication. However, text throughout the work identifies Naruto as the photographer.

The Copyright Law

Under U.S. copyright law, a photographer owns all rights to the images he captures unless he assigns those rights. Slater and Wildlife Personalities were turning a profit on the book, which they openly acknowledged included the photographic work of Naruto.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, filed a lawsuit in 2015 on Naruto’s behalf. Dr. Antje Engelhardt additionally acted as a plaintiff in an attempt to preserve Naruto’s rights. Engelhardt had spent a decade studying crested macaques, including Naruto, in Sulawesi, giving him a close relationship with the monkey. The plaintiffs alleged in the complaint that Slater and Wildlife Personalities were infringing Naruto’s copyrights.

Defendants responded by arguing that the plaintiffs had no standing and that no claim had been stated. The district court agreed with this motion, finding that plaintiffs had not established statutory standing. PETA and Dr. Engelhardt appealed.

The Argument for the Monkey

The Ninth Circuit first needed to decide whether or not PETA had standing to bring the case on Naruto’s behalf. PETA argued that they were acting as Naruto’s “next friend,” a common law concept that is typically used when one individual wants to act on behalf of another individual who is a minor, disabled or otherwise unable to direct an attorney as to their wishes. Generally, the party that acts as a “next friend” must have a well-established, relatively close relationship with the party for whom they are acting. In this instance, the court found against PETA because they could not establish a “significant relationship” with Naruto. Further, the court decreed that U.S. law does not permit an animal to be represented by a “next friend.” Dr. Engelhardt, who arguably did have a “significant relationship” with Naruto, had pulled out of the appeal by this time, which meant that no plaintiffs in the case had actual standing.

The court went even further, arguing that Congress would have to authorize the extension of “next friend” rights so that a person could bring a lawsuit on an animal’s behalf. Nonetheless, the Ninth Circuit acknowledged a case or controversy as described in the Constitution under Article III. The court felt an obligation to weigh whether or not an “incompetent party,” such as Naruto, was receiving adequate protection.

In the decision on the Article III question, the court ruled that the complaint adequately substantiated Naruto’s authorship of the photographs and demonstrated economic harm to the monkey as a result of the infringement on his copyrights. Accordingly, Naruto had standing under Article III.

Ultimately, the Ninth Circuit decided against Naruto because the Copyright Act does not give animals authority to file copyright infringement lawsuits. This lack of standing put an end to the lawsuit, but it sets an interesting precedent at the intersection between humans, animals and the law.

If you need any intellectual property guidance for you or your animal (tongue in cheek) request a free consultation below.

Copyright Basics

Many business owners have become astute about the critical need to protect their intellectual property with patents and trademark registrations. However, copyrights tend to get overlooked.

Copyrights are a fundamental aspect of intellectual property protection. Relatively speaking, registrations are easy and inexpensive to obtain, yet they provide strong protections. Working with an intellectual property attorney may be the best way to ensure that your company is taking full advantage of the protections that are afforded by copyrights.

What Is a Copyright?

Basically, a copyright protects an original work by an author. A person who holds a copyright has the sole authority to distribute, display, modify, copy or perform the work. Most people know that a book can be copyrighted, but so can articles in online formats and in magazines. The same is true for photographs, paintings, sculptures, plays, movies, music videos, ballets, songs, architectural drawings, computer software source code and many other materials.

Several of the items that are created and used within the course of business may be protected by copyright. This can include flyers, promotional materials, blogs, product packaging, content on the company website, jingles used in advertising and more.

The owner of the copyright is the only individual or entity that has the right to use, modify and distribute the protected materials. Anyone else who wishes to use the material in whole or in part must seek and obtain permission to do so from the copyright holder. If they fail to do this, then they may be prosecuted for copyright infringement.

What is Protected By a Copyright

A copyright protects “original works of authorship”. Copyrightable works fall into the following categories:

  • Poetry
  • Novels
  • Movies
  • Songs
  • Computer Software
  • Architecture
  • Graphic design works
  • Sculptural works
  • Choreographical works

What is Not PROTECTED BY COPYRIGHT?

Not everything is protected by copyright law. To be protected by copyright, a work must contain at least a minimum amount of authorship in the form of original expression. The following are categories of things generally not protected by a copyright:

  • Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries, or devices.
  • Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans; mere listings of ingredients or contents.
  • Works that are not fixed in a tangible form of expression, such as an improvised speech or performance that is not written down or otherwise recorded.
  • Works consisting entirely of information that is commonly available and contains no originality.
  • Works by the US government.

How Do You Get a Copyright?

As soon as a work is recorded in some tangible form, it enjoys immediate copyright protection in the U.S. The moment your website is ready to be published or your marketing materials are ready for distribution, they are protected.

Registration is not required, but it is recommended. Registration provides enhanced protection. It’s possible for authors to apply for copyright protection through the website of the U.S. Copyright Office. Fees of between $35 and $55 are due at the time of application. The office will request that a copy of the work to be registered be submitted for review and for them to keep on file.

Registrations generally are issued within a few weeks or months. On some occasions, the office will have additional questions about the work or about whether or not the work is suitable for copyright registration. An intellectual property attorney can handle this process for you.

How Long Does a Copyright Last?

If your work is new and was published on or after January 1, 1978, then the work is protected by U.S. copyright law for the author’s lifetime plus 70 years. If the work was not authored by an individual, but by a corporation or other entity, then it is entitled to 120 years of protection from the date of creation or 95 years of protection from the date of publication. In this case, the earlier date would prevail.

Works that are older than these time limits are said to be in the “public domain.” As an example, Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was published in 1876. This means that it is subject to earlier U.S. copyright law. Anything published prior to January 1, 1923 is officially in the public domain. This means that if you want to record Tom Sawyer as an audiobook or adapt it as a play, you are free to do so.

Are There International Copyrights?

International copyrights do not exist at this time. It may be useful to know that the Universal Copyright Convention and the Berne Convention do help to honor copyrighted works on an international level, and that the U.S. is a member of both conventions.

Copyright Violation Penalties

Depending on the nature of the offense, penalties for copyright infringement can vary in severity.

  • Not including attorney and court fees, violators can be fined of up to $150,000 in the U.S. and $1 million in Canada.
  • Any items that violate the copyright can be impounded.
  • The violator can receive jail time.

To avoid the consequences of copyright infringement, it’s important to know how copyright laws work. This will help you understand how to protect your own rights and avoid infringing on those of others.

If you have more questions about copyrights or about how to obtain a copyright registration on one of your original works, then contact Jeff Williams, an experienced intellectual property attorney.

Do I Need to Copyright My Website?

These days, it’s hard for any business to function without a website. Your website likely is the first contact that many of your customers will have with you, and this means that you have to work hard to keep your content up-to-date, valuable and meaningful.

Simply put, maintaining a website is hard work, but it’s definitely worth it. When you work that hard to build something, it’s only natural that you would want to protect it. This prevents other people from stealing your hard work and unfairly benefitting from the fruits of your labor.

One of the best ways to protect your website and its content is by obtaining a registered copyright on it. If you’re not certain what a copyright is and how it applies to websites, read on. Williams IP Law is covering the basics to help you protect your intellectual property rights.

What Is a Website?

According to the U.S. Copyright Office, a website is “a webpage or set of interconnected web pages, including a homepage, located on the same computer or server (i.e., fixed together on that computer or server), and prepared and maintained as a collection of information by a person, group, or organization.”

Accordingly, pretty nearly any website that you might create or have created for you will qualify for copyright protection under this broad definition. Even the simplest website that consists of only a single webpage with some basic information about your business qualifies, and if your website and business are successful, then this is the only incentive you need to consider obtaining a formal copyright.

Why Should You Copyright Your Website?

Whether you create and maintain a website yourself or you hire someone else to do it for you, a great deal of time, money and effort goes into it. The best websites contain plenty of original content like photographs, text on the various pages and blog posts.

All of that content is automatically protected under U.S. copyright law as soon as it is created. While formal registration of that content is not required, it is recommended as it provides you with more robust legal protections.

With a registration, your intellectual property rights are a matter of public information. You’ll even have a registration certificate to prove it. If you discover that someone is infringing your copyright, it can be helpful and even necessary to have a formally registered copyright before you can bring an infringement lawsuit.

Should you be forced to bring a lawsuit and you are able to prevail in court, that registration may entitle you to statutory damages and attorney’s fees. In short, registering a copyright for your website gives you additional and more robust legal remedies.

What Can You Not Copyright?

Copyright protection is applicable to a host of materials such as:

  • Songs
  • Photos
  • Paintings
  • Scripts
  • Movies
  • Poems
  • Books
  • Blog posts
  • Copy from webpages

As long as you are the author or creator of any of the content on your website, then it is possible to register for a copyright.

However, if you hire someone else to take photographs for your website, write content or produce blog posts, then they technically are the author and owner under copyright law. The same is true if you hire a web designer to build your website.

You can obtain ownership rights in all of this content and your overall website by arranging for an assignment that transfers ownership from the creator to you. Typically, it is necessary to have an attorney craft such an agreement.

Some web designers and other contributors to your website may have a standard assignment form that they use with all of their clients. It’s wise to have your own attorney review such an agreement before you sign, just to ensure that you are properly obtaining ownership.

How to Copyright Your Website

The copyright process is fairly quick and easy when you use the copyright.gov website. A minimal fee and paperwork are involved. If you are unfamiliar with the process or just want to ensure that things go more smoothly, then you may want to consult with an intellectual property attorney who can complete the registration process for you.

It’s also wise to work with an attorney because the copyright office occasionally will make rejections on submissions for registration. If this occurs, it is sensible to ask an attorney to help straighten out any issues to ensure registration.

If you want to ensure that your competitors are not allowed to steal your website content with impunity, then contact Williams IP Law. These experienced intellectual property practitioners will walk you through the process of registering a copyright on your website.

Patent vs copyright vs trademark


People who are unfamiliar with the various forms of intellectual property protection often use terms like “patent,” “trademark” and “copyright” almost interchangeably. In reality, these are three distinct forms of protection, each of which is designed to defend your rights to a specific type of intellectual property.

Understanding the difference is critical when you want to ensure that you have the right to fully defend your intellectual property. An intellectual property attorney can provide customized guidance and advice in your unique situation. Nonetheless, it is possible to describe here the three major forms of intellectual property protection.


What Is a Patent?

A patent protects a new invention, which may be a machine, a product, a process or a chemical composition. It is possible to obtain a patent on the design or appearance of an item just as it is possible to patent a new plant species.

A patent does not grant the holder the right to manufacture or sell their invention. Instead, it gives them the right to exclude others from using their proprietary innovation. Thus, if a patent holder notices that a competitor is selling a product that infringes on their patent rights, the patent holder may sue the alleged infringer.

Patents are only valid for a finite period of time. An invention is protected by a utility patent, which is valid for 20 years from the filing date of the patent application. A design patent is valid for only 14 years from its filing date.

While the patent is in force, it is possible for the owner to license it to others who may manufacture, sell or otherwise use the patented subject matter. Patent owners also may sell their rights to another party.

What Is a Trademark?

Trademarks may take many forms, including a single word or an entire phrase. A trademark registration also may cover a design, symbol or a combination of text and a design.

The strongest trademarks are unique and distinctive. Their primary purpose is to identify the source of the goods or services on which they are used. For example, when people see the famous Nike “swoosh” on a pair of shoes, they are immediately able to identify the footwear as coming from Nike.

In the U.S., trademarks are registered for particular goods and services that the owner must identify in their application for registration. Use of the mark in connection with the goods or services must begin in U.S. commerce before a registration can be obtained.

Accordingly, a company or individual may apply for a trademark registration that covers a wide variety of goods and services such as restaurant services, t-shirts and music performances. Before a registration can be obtained, the owner must demonstrate that the mark is actually being used on all of these goods and services. If they decide not to use their trademark on t-shirts, then these goods must be deleted from the application before the mark can proceed to registration.

U.S. trademarks are renewable in perpetuity for 10-year periods. Every 10 years, the owner must submit fees and proof that the mark is still being used in commerce.

What Is a Copyright?

A copyright is used to protect any work of original authorship. While most people understand that a book is copyrighted, they may be more surprised to learn that a painting, sculpture, choreographic work, photograph, movie or software code also may be protected with a copyright.

Copyright protection is automatic in the U.S. As soon as a creative expression is captured in some tangible form, it is copyrighted. However, it is further possible to register the material with the U.S. Copyright Office. Doing so provides the owner with additional means of protecting their original work.

This means that the author has control over reproductions of their work as well as any derivative works. Any public performance or display of their work may only be pursued with the author’s permission. Failure to obtain such permission may lead to litigation.

Typically, the term of a registered copyright is the lifetime of the work’s author plus an additional 70 years.

Which Type of IP Protection Should You Pursue?

If you are an inventor, innovator or entrepreneur, then you may need to pursue one or more forms of IP protection. A software developer could copyright the code on a new program, obtain a trademark registration for the software’s name and get a patent on a process within the program.

Working with a qualified intellectual property attorney is the best way to ensure that your rights are sufficiently protected by patents, trademarks and copyrights.

Author: Jeff Williams

Jeff Williams is an experienced mechanical engineer and lawyer that consults closely with clients in a strait forward and clear manner. He brings a particular set of strengths and unique perspectives to the firm.

Jeff received a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Arizona State University in 2005. He was an engineer for a number of years at a number of large corporations before pursuing his law degree. He graduated from Texas A&M University School of Law (formerly Texas Wesleyan University School of Law) with a J.D. in 2010. By combining his education and prior work experience into the field of intellectual property law, Jeff has developed key skills to fully assist clients.

It’s Not Unusual to be Denied a Copyright: The Carlton Dance


Copyrighting a Dance

While patent and trademark protection may require years of effort to obtain, most copyright registrations happen fairly quickly. Of course, this is only the case when the material that is submitted for copyright registration is considered appropriate for such registration.

A book, the script for a play, a recorded song and a painting all are examples of items that are suitable for copyright registration. However, is it possible to obtain a copyright registration for a dance?

Actor Alfonso Ribiero, perhaps best known for the role of Carlton Banks on the 1990s television series The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, performed a routine on the show that is popularly known as the “Carlton Dance.” Mr. Ribiero revived the dance during his stint on Dancing with the Stars in 2014. The dance had so far entered the pop-culture consciousness that it also figured in two video games, Fortnite from Epic Games and NBA 2K from Take-Two.

Ribiero objected to the appropriation of his signature dance in these video games, so he decided to obtain a copyright registration on the “Carlton Dance.” Moreover, he filed a lawsuit for copyright infringement against both video game developers.

1976 Copyright Act

Ribiero’s idea to seek copyright protection for a dance wasn’t outlandish. The U.S. Copyright Office allows for the protection of choreography and pantomime. It was provided for in the 1976 Copyright Act, which for the first time included both art forms as appropriate subject matter for copyright protection. Prior to this new law, certain choreographic works could receive copyright protection, but only if they included a dramatic element, characters that showed development and some sort of story arc.

The 1976 act expanded choreographic protection to dance works that did not necessarily follow a plot or have characters. Artists who wanted formal protection of their work submitted it in some form to the U.S. Copyright Office. A video or other visual recording is the most frequent medium in which a choreographic work is submitted for registration. Alternatively, some artists submit a text description along with drawings or pictures. A written dance-notation format also is acceptable. Regardless of the medium, the submission must be in a format that will allow for accurate future performances.

The Verdict

The expansion of the law did not mean that all dances are eligible for copyright protection. Through the years, the copyright office has made clear that social dances and discrete dance steps are not protectable by copyright. A football player cannot register their end-zone dance, for instance.

It seems that the U.S. Copyright Office believes that the “Carlton Dance” falls into this latter category. An examiner at the office responded to Ribiero’s application for a copyright by saying that the movements were a “simple dance routine” that could not be registered.

The examiner described the three main steps that make up the Carlton routine, noting that their simplicity does not rise to the level of being a choreographic work. In conclusion, she refused to register the dance.

Ribiero does have a chance to appeal this decision, and the lawsuit is still ongoing. Nonetheless, things are looking more hopeful for Epic Games and Take-Two. The decision made by the U.S. Copyright Office may have a significant bearing on the civil lawsuit. Already, the defendants in the lawsuit have filed motions to dismiss. Their argument is that because the dance is not protectable as a copyright, it follows that Ribiero should not be able to sue the video game designers. Moreover, the defendants question Ribiero’s ownership of the dance since it was first performed on a TV show that is owned by a network.

Ribiero is likely to oppose the motion to dismiss in the near future in addition to appealing the decision by the U.S. Copyright Office. His success or failure in these endeavors may provide interesting case law for future artists who believe that they are entitled to copyright protection.

Free Consultation
Author: Jeff Williams

Jeff Williams is an experienced mechanical engineer and lawyer that consults closely with clients in a strait forward and clear manner. He brings a particular set of strengths and unique perspectives to the firm.

Jeff received a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Arizona State University in 2005. He was an engineer for a number of years at a number of large corporations before pursuing his law degree. He graduated from Texas A&M University School of Law (formerly Texas Wesleyan University School of Law) with a J.D. in 2010. By combining his education and prior work experience into the field of intellectual property law, Jeff has developed key skills to fully assist clients.