The Internet has been a boon to business. It brought local economies into the global market, cut down on communications costs, and made accessible information that was once only available through painstaking research. That is not to say, however, that the technology has not had its drawbacks. Towards the end of the 1990’s, peer-to-peer file sharing websites became a haven for piracy of software, music, and movies. At first, those perpetrating these crimes were only a small segment of society, but gradually the practice became more widely accepted and piracy became prevalent in nearly every demographic. Various industries took notice and scrambled to fight back. Many are familiar with the Recording Industry Association of America‘s (RIAA) resort to the courts to sue and force settlements with those who share music over the Internet. While the RIAA pioneered this strategy, many companies are now following suit by filing suit. One such case was filed recently by Saregama India, Ltd., the biggest recording company in India, in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.
Saregama discovered that many of its songs, popular both in India and among the Indian population in the United States, are being made available as ringtones on a website called Dishant.com. Saregama alleges that Dishant.com and its owners, Dishant Shah and Meeta Shah, violated Saregama’s copyrights because they never bought the rights to these songs nor received approval from Saregama to share the songs as ringtones. Further, Saregama claims that Dishant.com displayed Saregama logos next to the titles of the songs, which would be a trademark violation.
Under the Copyright Act, the right to distribute copies of copyrighted work, or to prepare derivative works based on the copyrighted work, belongs solely to the copyright owner. Under the Act, if Saregama can prove that the materials provided by Dishant.com are identical to or substantially identical to any property owned by Saregama, and that Dishant.com provided those materials without permission, then Saregama’s burden will be met. The consequences for a copyright violation can be substantial. If Saregama prevails, it may be entitled to recover any profits Dishant.com made from the use of the songs (or statutory damages up to $150,000 if the infringement was willful), plus reimbursement of its attorneys’ fees.
The trademark aspect of Saregama’s suit is based on the Lanham Act, the primary source of federal trademark law in the United States. The use of another’s trademark in connection with the sale of a product constitutes infringement if it is likely to cause consumer confusion as to the source of the product or as to the sponsorship or approval of the product. In deciding whether consumers are likely to be confused, courts will typically look to a number of factors, including: (1) the strength of the mark; (2) the proximity of the goods; (3) the similarity of the marks; (4) evidence of actual confusion; (5) the similarity of marketing channels used; (6) the degree of caution exercised by the typical purchaser; and (7) the defendant’s intent. Trademark violations can be costly as well. Under 15 U.S.C. 1117(a), a successful plaintiff may be entitled to defendant’s profits, damages sustained by the plaintiff, and reimbursement of the costs of the action (including reasonable attorneys’ fees in “exceptional cases”). Damages may be trebled upon showing of bad faith.
If you own rights to a trademark or copyright that is being infringed by another, don’t wait for an industry trade group to bring legal action on your behalf. Consult an intellectual property attorney and find out whether action is needed to protect your business assets.