Lights, Camera, Lawsuit! Your Property, Common Property, and Intellectual Property

Movies and music provide immense amounts of joy and entertainment to people all over the world. Collectively, the movie and music industries are worth upwards of twelve figures in revenue in a single year (for those of you counting the zeros on your hands at home . . . that’s north of $100,000,000,000.00 a year!). Much like you may be protective of your property and your homeowner’s association may be protective of its common property, it is understandable that those in the movie and music industry are also extremely protective of their property.

When most people hear the word “property” they probably think of land or real estate. But, another form of property is something called intellectual property. Intellectual property is property that is the result of another’s creativity (i.e., a movie or a song). And, just like real property owners may protect their property through the use of restrictive covenants, those in the movie or music industry protect their intellectual property through the use of copyrights.

Copyrights give the intellectual property’s creator (or owner but that is a topic for another day) the exclusive right to control who or what uses and displays their work. Now, you may be asking yourself “what does intellectual property have to do with my house or my HOA?” To answer that question I have another one for you. Have you ever been to a party? It is not uncommon to attend a party where perhaps someone is playing a movie or music to help keep everyone entertained. While this may seem like harmless fun, problems can occur when you consider the situation in which a movie or the music is being played.

Copyright protection is governed by the United States Copyright Act. The Copyright Act prohibits movies or music from being played “publicly” unless the person playing it owns a valid license to do so. What does it mean to play movies or music “publicly”? The Copyright Act defines this as playing or displaying the movie or music “at a place open to the public or at any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances is gathered.” For example, an association event. If a homeowners association wants to have a neighborhood movie night, or perhaps a neighborhood dance in the clubhouse where they will be showing a movie or playing music for everyone’s enjoyment, they have to obtain a license prior to doing so or they could face some serious penalties for using someone else’s intellectual property. In other words . . . they may be committing copyright infringement.

Just as not every home is built by the same builder, not all licenses to display movies or music come from the same organization. There are numerous organizations out there that hold licensing rights to specific movies and music. When an association is considering hosting an event where movies or music may be played, it is extremely important to ensure that licenses for all potential movies and music are obtained from the appropriate organization(s). Depending on the movie or music desired, these licenses can range from several hundreds to several thousands of dollars. While this may sound pricey, license costs pale in comparison to the penalties that can be assessed for committing copyright infringement. Statutory damages for copyright infringement can range from $750.00 to $30,000.00 while even getting as high as $150,000.00 for willful infringement where a person or association knowingly/willingly infringes on a copyright (kind of like if you just read a blog about copyright infringement and did it anyway). Oh, and this does not include potential other fees like court costs and attorney fees.

Copyright infringement is a big deal. Just as you and your community association have rights to protect your property, those in the movie and music industries have rights to protect theirs. Infringing on someone else’s copyright can lead to serious consequences, including large monetary damages, which can be avoided if the proper steps are taken. Community associations should consider these issues prior to hosting any event where they may be showing a movie or playing music. If you need assistance understanding the intricacies of copyright law, obtaining the appropriate licenses, or are just curious as to what you should or shouldn’t do, the attorneys with our office would be more than happy to assist.

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