What is copyright misuse in the United States?

What is copyright misuse in the United States?

Copyright misuse is a defense against an accusation of copyright infringement.  Copyright Law in the United States grants a copyright holder exclusive rights to prevent other people from reproducing, adapting, distributing, displaying and publicly performing copyrighted works.  But when a copyright holder attempts to extend their rights beyond what is granted by the Copyright Law that can be considered copyright misuse.

Copyright misuse is considered an equitable defense to copyright infringement. The copyright abuse doctrine is similar to the patent misuse doctrine.  The defendant that wants to raise a copyright misuse defense must show that 1) the plaintiff is using a copyright 2) to secure an exclusive right or limited monopoly not granted by the United States Library of Congress, 3) that is contrary to public policy.  The courts in the United States have found that when a plaintiff attempts to improperly enlarge the rights granted by a copyright the plaintiff comes to court with “unclean hands”, and the court will refuse to enforce the copyright until the copyright misuse ends and its effects no longer exist. The misuse does not have to be against the alleged infringer – any misuse can be used to defend against the infringement suit.

Some examples of copyright misuse are:

Preventing a user from creating a competing product.  For example when a licencor required the licensee from developing a software product that would compete with the licensee’s software.   Lasercomb America, Inc. v. Reynolds, 911 F.2d 970 (4th Cir. 1990).

Extending the term of a copyright beyond the term granted by the copyright law.  For example a licencor that required a licensee to agree for a term of 99 years when the copyright term was 75 years was found to be misuse.  Lasercomb America, Inc. v. Reynolds, 911 F.2d 970 (4th Cir. 1990)

Preventing a user from licensing other materials. For example, a licensor who prevented a licensee from using other material was found to have committed copyright misuse. Practice Management Information Corporation v. American Medical Association, 121 F.3d 516 (9th Cir. 1997).

Not disclosing what material subject to copyright protection and what material is in the public domain. For example claiming several passages were covered by a copyright when those passages were in fact in the public domain constituted misuse.  International Biotical Corp. v. Associated Mills, Inc., 239 F. Supp. 511, 514 (N.D.Ill. 1964).

Materially false copyright warnings that exaggerate the penalties for copyright infringement. See e.g. Vogue Ring Creations, Inc. v. Hardman, 410 F. Supp. 609 (D.R.I. 1976).

Copyright misuse is a complicated fact specific legal doctrine.  If you accused of copyright infringement or you feel that your copyright is being infringed you should consult with an attorney that specializes in copyright law.