Copyfraud is a form of fraud, where individuals or institutions claim copyrights to content that is in the public domain. Such claims are wrongful because material that not copyrighted is free for all to use, modify and reproduce. Copyfraud also includes overreaching claims by publishers and others, as where a legitimate copyright owner knowingly claims rights beyond what the law allows. The term "copyfraud" was coined by Jason Mazzone, a Professor of Law at the University of Illinois.
Because copyfraud carries little or no oversight by authorities and few legal consequences, it exists on a massive scale, with millions of works in the public domain falsely labelled as copyrighted. Substantial payments are therefore unnecessarily made by businesses and individuals for licensing fees. Mazzone states that copyfraud stifles valid reproduction of free material, discourages innovation and undermines free speech rights.:1028 Other legal scholars have suggested public and private remedies, and a few cases have been brought involving copyfraud.
Mazzone describes copyfraud as:
- Claiming copyright ownership of public domain material.:1038
- Imposition by a copyright owner of restrictions beyond what the law allows.:1047
- Claiming copyright ownership on the basis of ownership of copies or archives.:1052
- Attaching copyright notices to a public domain work converted to a different medium.:1044–45
Mazzone argues that copyfraud is usually successful because there are few and weak laws criminalizing false statements about copyrights, lax enforcement of such laws, few people who are competent to give legal advice on the copyright status of commandeered material, and few people willing to risk a lawsuit to resist the fraudulent licensing fees. "These circumstances have produced fraud on an untold scale, with millions of works in the public domain deemed copyrighted and countless dollars paid out every year in licensing fees to make copies that could be made for free. ... [C]opyfraud upsets the constitutional balance and undermines First Amendment values", chilling free expression and stifling creativity.:1029–30
In the U.S. Copyright Act, only two sections deal with improper assertions of copyright on public domain materials: Section 506(c) criminalizes fraudulent uses of copyright notices, and Section 506(e) punishes knowingly making a false representation of a material fact in the application for copyright registration.:1036 Section 512(f) additionally punishes using the safe harbor provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to remove material the issuer knows is not infringing. But the U.S. Copyright Act does not expressly provide for any civil actions to remedy claims of copyright on public domain materials, nor does the Act prescribe relief for individuals who refrain from copying or pay for copying permission to an entity that engages in copyfraud.:1030
Section 202 of the Australian Copyright Act 1968, which imposes penalties for "groundless threats of legal proceedings", provides a cause of action in that country for any false claims of copyright infringement. This includes false claims of copyright ownership of public domain material, or claims to impose copyright restrictions beyond those permitted by the law.
American legal scholar Paul J. Heald, in a 1993 paper published in the Journal of Intellectual Property Law, explored the possibility that payment demands for spurious copyrights might be resisted in civil lawsuits under a number of commerce-law theories: (1) Breach of warranty of title; (2) unjust enrichment; (3) fraud; and (4) false advertising. Heald cited a case in which the first of these theories was used successfully in a copyright context: Tams-Witmark Music Library v. New Opera Company. In this case
[A]n opera company purchased the right to perform the opera The Merry Widow for $50,000 a year. After a little more than a year of performances, the company discovered that the work had passed into the public domain several years before due to a failure on the part of the copyright holder to renew the copyright. It ceased paying royalties, and after being sued by the owner of the abandoned copyright, counterclaimed for damages in the amount paid to the owner on a breach of warranty/failure of consideration theory. The trial court awarded the opera company $50,500 in damages, and the court of appeals affirmed the judgement, finding that The Merry Widow "passed, finally, completely and forever into the public domain and became freely available to the unrestricted use of anyone. ... New Opera's pleas of breach of warranty and total failure of consideration were established, and by undisputed proof."
Cory Doctorow, in a 2014 Boing Boing article, noted the "widespread proactice [sic] of putting restrictions on scanned copies of public domain books online" and the many "powerful entities who lobby online services for a shoot now/ask questions later approach to copyright takedowns, while the victims of the fraud have no powerful voice advocating for them." Professor Tanya Asim Cooper wrote that Corbis's claims to copyright in its digital reproductions of public domain art images "spurious ... abuses ... restricting access to art that belongs to the public by requiring payment of unnecessary fees and stifling the proliferation of new, creative expression, of 'Progress' that the Constitution guarantees. Charles Eicher pointed out the prevalence of copyfraud with respect to Google Books, Creative Commons' efforts to "license" public domain works, and other areas. He explained one of the copyfraudsters' unscrupulous methods: After you scan a public domain book, "reformat it as a PDF, mark it with a copyright date, register it as a new book with an ISBN, then submit it to Amazon.com for sale [or] as an ebook on Kindle. Once the book is listed for sale ... submit it to Google Books for inclusion in its index. Google earns a small kickback on every sale referred to Amazon or other booksellers." Eicher suggests several remedies:
Government should act [by using its regulatory power] to secure its authority over copyrights. ... Private interests should be prohibited from exerting pseudo-regulatory powers. ... Anti-trust actions could break up the newly forming publishing cartel [of Google and Amazon] before it becomes entrenched. ... Google's orphan books settlement should be given further judicial review and invalidated. ... Google and Amazon should be prohibited from offering books with false copyrights, the public should be empowered to flag copyfraud books and issue a take-down notice.
- In 1984, Universal Studios sued Nintendo to stop them from profiting on their Donkey Kong arcade game, on the basis that Donkey Kong was too similar to King Kong, which they owned. In the end, Nintendo's lawyers showed that Universal had argued against RKO General in 1975 that King Kong was in the public domain. Nintendo also won the appeal, a counterclaim, and a further appeal.
- In 2006, Michael Crook filed false DMCA claims against websites, claiming copyright on screenshots of his appearance on the Fox News Channel show Hannity & Colmes. In a March 2007 settlement, Crook agreed to withdraw the claims, "take a copyright law course and apologize for interfering with the free speech rights of his targets."
- In June 2015, the American Antiquarian Society, previously criticized for claiming propriety rights over its collections material in the public domain, updated its web site to reflect a rights and reproductions policy that makes no claims to copyright. The AAS allows users to "freely download and use any of [the] images" on its online image database, and it does not require a user to cite the library as a source. Additionally, the AAS now allows unrestricted photography within its reading room. :1053 
- The Arthur Conan Doyle estate was accused of copyfraud by Leslie Klinger in 2013 in a lawsuit in Illinois for demanding that Klinger pay a license fee for the use in his book of the character Sherlock Holmes and other characters and elements in Conan Doyle's works published before 1923. The US Supreme Court agreed with Klinger, ruling that these characters and elements are in the American public domain.
- In 2013, Good Morning to You Productions, a documentary film company, sued Warner/Chappell Music for falsely claiming copyright to the song "Happy Birthday to You". The lawsuit has continued in federal court in California as a putative class action under the name Rupa Marya, et al. v. Warner/Chappell Music.
- Copyright misuse
- Fair use
- Patent troll
- SCO v. Novell
- National Portrait Gallery and Wikimedia Foundation copyright dispute
- Mazzone, Jason (2006). "Copyfraud" (PDF). New York University Law Review 81 (3): 1026.
- "Jason Mazzone, Professor, Lynn H. Murray Faculty Scholar in Law", University of Illinois College of Law, accessed June 17, 2015
- Mazzone, Jason. "Too Quick to Copyright", Legal Times, vol. 26, no. 46
- "Comparison: two modern editions of a public domain work", Public Domain Sherpa
- Heald, Paul J. "Payment Demands for Spurious Copyrights: Four Causes of Action", Journal of Intellectual Property Law, vol. 1, 1993–1994, p. 259
- 81 N.E. 2d 70 (NY 1948)
- Doctorow, Cory. "Copyfraud, uncertainty and doubt: the vanishing online public domain", Boing Boing, June 25, 2014, accessed June 16, 2015
- Cooper, Tanya Asim. "Corbis & Copyright?: Is Bill Gates Trying to Corner the Market on Public Domain Art?", Intellectual Property Law Bulletin, vol. 16, p. 1, University of Alabama 2011
- Eicher, Charles. "Copyfraud: Poisoning the public domain", The Register, June 26, 2009, accessed June 16, 2015
- United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit (October 4, 1984). Universal City Studios, Inc. v. Nintendo Co., Ltd.
- United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit (July 15, 1986). Universal City Studios, Inc. v. Nintendo Co., Ltd.
- Reyners, Conrad (March 17, 2008). "The plight of Pirates on the information superwaves". Salient. Retrieved 2012-09-07.
- "Diehl v. Crook | Electronic Frontier Foundation". Eff.org. Retrieved 2009-07-19.
- Cobia, Jeffrey. "The DMCA Takedown Notice Procedure: Misues, Abuses, and Shortcomings of the Process", Minn. J. L. SCI. & Tech. 2009;10(1):387-411
- "Rights and Reproductions at the American Antiquarian Society". Americanantiquarian.org. 2009-04-16. Retrieved 2009-07-19.
- Davies, Nick. "Sherlock Holmes will stay in public domain". Melville House. Retrieved February 3, 2015.
- "Conan Doyle Estate: Denying Sherlock Holmes Copyright Gives Him 'Multiple Personalities'". Hollywoodreporter.com. 2013-09-13. Retrieved 2013-09-17.
- Masnick, Mike. "Lawsuit Filed to Prove Happy Birthday Is in The Public Domain; Demands Warner Pay Back Millions of License Fees", Techdirt.com, June 13, 2013
- Masnick, Mike. "Warner Music Reprising the Role of the Evil Slayer of the Public Domain, Fights Back Against Happy Birthday Lawsuit", Techdirt.com, September 3, 2013
- Johnson, Ted. "Court Keeps Candles Lit on Dispute Over 'Happy Birthday' Copyright", Variety, October 7, 2013
Mazzone, Jason. Copyfraud and Other Abuses of Intellectual Property Law, Stanford Law Books (2011) ISBN 0804760063