Although known by several different names, such as a cease and desist letter, a notice letter, and a threat letter, any letter that notes ownership of a copyright and your infringement of that copyright must be taken seriously. A copyright infringement threat letter is a letter or email from an alleged copyright owner threatening to take legal action against you if you do not stop using a work to which it claims copyright ownership. The letter typically starts out by noting who the sender is and the owner and/or author of the copyrighted work. It then provides a reference to the actual work itself, which may include a corresponding registration number with the United States Copyright Office, and identifies the use it claims is infringement of copyright.
More often than not, there is general language regarding what potential damages are available, and it set forth demands. While each letter is unique to a certain extent, the demands usually are not. A copyright infringement letter will usually request that the alleged use cease and desist by a certain date, may request direct contact with the sender by a certain date, may demand some sort of monetary payment in the form of a retroactive license or otherwise, and may request a signed agreement noting your willingness to abide the demands. Ultimately, the letter will note that your failure to fulfill the demands could result in future action, which may include litigation for copyright infringement.
It is important to understand why you would receive a copyright infringement threat letter. Typically, the owner of a copyrighted work will employ some kind of monitoring to identify when there are unauthorized third party uses of its copyrighted work. When such uses are identified, the most common initial step is to send a letter, rather than proceed directly to litigation (it is worth noting that a letter is not required under law, and it is within the discretion of the copyright owner to determine how to seek redress of any alleged damage). There are many reasons copyright owners send such letters, including protection of their existing copyright, to avoid continued unauthorized use, and to ensure the sustainability of the value of their copyright. In fact, some copyright owners may even see copyright enforcement as an additional revenue stream. This is especially true since, in today's digital age, access to various works is easier than it was in the past. As such, users may be using copyrighted material without even knowing it. That said, there is no intent requirement under copyright infringement law, and the user has an affirmative duty to confirm that any such use of a work is legal.
If you receive an infringement of copyright letter, you have several options. The first is to comply and cease and desist any and all use of the infringing work. While this may be enough to resolve the matter, as noted above, there may be additional requirements of a retroactive license or other demands. The second option is to identify possible defenses under copyright law, which may include fair use defenses. Regardless, it is important that you confirm that the copyright owner does indeed have a valid copyright, how many copyright registrations it is relying upon, and your ultimate financial and legal exposure in the particular instance before acting. Do not panic or jump to conclusions before researching the important issues inherent in any copyright infringement matter.
Brian A. Hall is an attorney and partner of Traverse Legal, PLC, a law firm specializing in complex litigation, intellectual property matters, internet law, and copyright registration and copyright infringement matters. Speak with a copyright attorney today and learn more about the importance of understanding the intricacies of copyright infringement and copyright enforcement.