This case leads to an interesting, and important, question: Who can be liable for infringing the artists’ song? How can Heavy Young Heathens name so many companies as defendants in the lawsuit? Could they all be responsible for copyright infringement?
In the case above, both Ms. Knierim and Mr. Frazier will certainly be held liable if Heavy Young Heathens is successful in its lawsuit. But these Olympic athletes likely would not have sufficient assets to cover the judgment in the event of the artists’ success. Copyright owners can seek up to $150,000 per infringement, and direct infringers such as these athletes likely don’t have the assets – so what do the artists do? They look beyond direct liability, to those who might be liable for indirect liability. There are two types of indirect liability: contributory and/or vicarious infringement.
Contributory infringement occurs when someone knowingly induces, causes, or materially contributes to the copyright infringement. Vicarious infringement (frequently applied to employers) does not require knowledge, but instead only requires that the potentially infringing party has the right and ability to, or be in a position to, supervise the infringers and directly benefit financially from the infringement.
Contributory infringement is premised on one’s failure to stop its own actions, which in turn facilitated the third-party infringement. Vicarious infringement is premised in one’s failure to stop a third party from directly infringing. These third-party liabilities are highly fact specific, considering the role of the third party in the action.
Here, Comcast Corporation, NBCUniversal Media, LLC, Peacock, USA Network, and U.S. Figure Skating will all have to spend countless dollars to defend themselves from third-party liability. What are some ways that you can you prevent third party liability in your business?
- As an employer, make sure to educate your employees about how they can avoid infringing another’s copyright. For example, if your employee creates PowerPoint presentations or posts on your website or social media, let them know about websites where the images are available for use to the public, such as unsplash.com. The owners of these images have provided them for free use by the public for any purpose.
- If you own a website, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act provides a safe harbor – if you remove the potentially-infringing material as soon as you are notified, then the safe harbor will protect you from liability.
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