What are the Major Copyright Infringement Cases?

Alan Rankin

The major copyright infringement cases in the United States set the precedents for what is and is not protected by copyright. Some cases extended protection to new media that did not exist when the laws were originally written. Others determined the finer points and specifics of copyright protection. In the U.S., case law is cited as precedent for later cases, effectively becoming part of the law itself. Other nations have their own laws and procedures that will apply to their own copyright infringement cases.

A&M Records v. Napster and similar cases established that online file-sharing was copyright infringement.
A&M Records v. Napster and similar cases established that online file-sharing was copyright infringement.

U.S. copyright law was established by Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution and was based on an English law from 1710. Laws enacted in 1790 and 1831 outlined the details of protecting creative works. These were further defined by later laws, as well as copyright infringement cases decided by the courts. One of the earliest such cases, 1880’s Baker v. Selden, determined that ideas alone could not be copyrighted, only their expression as a work of art. An equally significant case in 1884, Burrow-Giles v. Sarony, established copyright protection for the new art form of photography.

A 1930 case, Nichols v. Universal Pictures, determined that the creation of similar characters did not always constitute copyright infringement; in other words, Shakespeare, were he still alive, could not sue the producers of West Side Story. This has limits, however; the 1952 case National Comics v. Fawcett Publications decided that Fawcett’s Captain Marvel character was too similar in powers and appearance to National’s Superman. Ironically, when National, a.k.a. DC Comics, later acquired the rights to Captain Marvel, it could not print the character’s name on comic book covers, as the name had been copyrighted by rival Marvel Comics in the interim.

Another comics-related case, 1964’s Irving Berlin v. E.C. Publications — the publisher of Mad Magazine — determined that parodies of songs do not violate copyright, even if they use similar music to the original. This is why Weird Al Yankovic does not face lawsuits for his many spot-on song parodies. This too has limits, as was demonstrated when music publishers brought copyright infringement cases against sampled music in the 1980s. The determining case was 1991’s Grand Upright Music v. Warner Bros . After this case was decided, rappers and other musicians had to secure permission for all sampled music, usually paying usage fees as well.

New technologies are often subject to copyright infringement cases. Sony Corp. v. Universal City Studios, the so-called Betamax case of 1984, allowed the sale of video recorders and the creation of the billion-dollar home video market. Apple v. Franklin Computer, in 1983, extended copyright protection to computer software. 2001’s A&M Records v. Napster and similar cases established that online file-sharing was copyright infringement, and the providers of file-sharing software were liable. A 1995 case, Religious Technology Center v. Netcom, had already decided that Internet service providers were not liable in such cases as long as they were not aware of the infringement.

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