Tips to help ecommerce retailers avoid copyright infringement issues.

Tips to help ecommerce retailers avoid copyright infringement issues.

A copyright is a set of exclusive rights granted to the creator of a new work of expression.  Creators such as painters, sculptors, film makers, photographers and authors are all granted copyright protection to their works.  Computer software is considered a type of literary work, like a book, so computer software is eligible for copyright protection.  A copyright is granted to the creator of a new work when the work is saved in some manner.  A copyright can be registered in the United States to gain additional protection, however registration is not required for a copyright to be granted.  A copyright grants its owner the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, perform, display, transmit and make derivative works based on the original. If someone other than the copyright owner attempts to exercise one of these exclusive rights that can be considered copyright infringement.

United Stats copyright law was written long before the internet was available in most homes.  The law makers that drafted the law could not reasonably be expected to foresee that people in the future would be able to instantly transmit huge amounts of data across the world with a device that fits in a pocket. For that reason the internet presents copyright law with many unique challenges.

E-commerce is a driving force on the internet. Retailers create different forms of web content like, written descriptions, photographs and videos to present their products to consumers.  The purpose of this web content is to make a retailer’s website stand out to both consumers and search engines.  Developing website content that is both attractive to a human reader and optimized for search engines takes time and money to develop.  There is a strong incentive for a retailer to copy content from a competitor’s website in an attempt to curry the favor of consumers and search engines.  However copying content from a competitor’s website is not a good because product descriptions, photographs and videos can all eligible for copyright protection.

Manufacturers will often supply their retailer partners with a license to use product descriptions and photographs created by the manufacturer. In this case, one retailer would not have a copyright claim against another retailer because the copyrighted content was created by the manufacturer.  Even if the content was copied from one retailer’s website to another, the manufacturer would have suffered a copyright infringement, because the manufacturer is the copyright holder.

Here are some examples of when a retailer would have a copyright infringement claim against someone who copied content from their website:

  1. The retailer hires a professional copywriter to create products descriptions.  A product description created by a retailer to promote products on their website would grant the retailer a copyright to the product description.
  2. The retailer hires a professional photographer to take promotional photographs.  Photographs commissioned by the retailer would vest a copyright in the retailer.

An accusation of copyright infringement is usually made through a letter from an attorney.  It is unlikely that a copyright owner would file a lawsuit without first trying to negotiate with the alleged infringer. If you receive a letter accusing you of copyright infringement it is important that you respond to it with the assistance of an attorney well versed in copyright law.

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