You just hired a young web designer as an independent contractor to revamp your website. After struggling through the creative process, you and your web designer ultimately come to a decision on the final product, and you launch your site. However, a few months later, you receive a letter from the Law Office of Koppi & Wright, PC accusing you of infringing on its client’s intellectual property—specifically pointing to a few graphics and photographs scattered throughout your homepage. Koppi & Wright demands that you remove the graphics and photographs from your website or else it will file a lawsuit against you and your business for copyright infringement.
The main question is—did you do anything wrong? Are you liable if the pictures and graphics are actually protected by copyrights? After all, the web designer you hired placed the questionable graphics and photographs on the website—not you. The simple answer to each of these questions is a resounding “maybe” depending on a few key circumstances, of course.
Copyrights, In General
Copyrights are a type of intellectual property that grants the owner or originator certain exclusive rights including the right to reproduce, copy, distribute, and perform the work created. (17 U.S. Code § 106.) Specifically, copyrights protect original works of authorship including architectural, audiovisual, cartographic, choreographic, dramatic, graphic, literary, musical, pantomimic, pictorial, and sculptural creations. (copyright.gov.)
And to cover our bases, patents protect inventions and discoveries as opposed to works of authorship. (uspto.gov). On the other hand, trademarks generally protect names or logos that are associated with goods and/or services. (Id.).
As a general rule, if you want to use someone else’s property, you should probably ask for permission. The same principle applies for intellectual property, and in this case, copyrights. Once you receive permission from the owner or originator of the content or authored work, you should be able to use the work—such as a song or photograph—in your desired capacity. For instance, if you wanted to use a certain artist’s photograph as a backdrop on your website, you may do so with the permission of said artist. In another example, if you wanted to use the name and likeness of one of Disney’s fictional characters in your own business, you will need to get permission. Conversely, any time you decide to go rogue and use someone else’s authored work without that person’s permission, you are likely infringing on a Copyright.
Without getting too much into detail about fair use and other copyright exceptions (doing so would triple the length of this article), it is important to note that knowing when you are required to ask for permission can be a bit confusing. This is especially true if your “use” of the copyrighted work is more than simply copying or reproducing the work. For example, let’s say you wanted to take inspiration from a copyrighted work to create something of your own. Do you need to ask the author/originator of that copyrighted work to begin creating? The safe (albeit simplified) answer to that is “yes” unless you very clearly fall into an exception such as fair use. Rogers v. Koons is a notable case addressing this very issue. In Rogers, the court found that a sculptor’s faithfully copied sculpture of a copyrighted postcard photograph—which so blatantly copied the creative expression of the postcard photograph—did not fall under any fair use exceptions and therefore, constituted copyright infringement. (Rogers v. Koons (2d Cir. 1992) 960 F.2d 301, 307.) Although a sculptured version of a postcard photograph requires more work and transformation than simply photocopying, a faithful reproduction of an original copyrighted work can constitute copyright infringement.
Vicarious Liability of Copyright Infringement of Independent Contractors
We know that your direct actions can constitute infringement, but what happens when the infringement occurs due to a third party’s actions? For example, what if the third party is the independent contractor you hired to create your website?
In these instances, courts have held that anyone who has the “right and ability to supervise the infringing activity” of an independent contractor will be held vicariously liable for copyright infringement if he/she enjoys a “direct financial benefit from said infringing activity.” (See Rosen v. Martin. Cal. Apr. 19, 2013, No. CV 12-0657 ABC (Ex)) 2013 U.S.Dist.LEXIS 201985, at *12.)
In Rosen v. Martin, the court found the defendant had the ability to supervise the work of his independent contractors when they downloaded and uploaded copyrighted works without the Plaintiff’s permission. (Id.) Even though the defendant directed the independent contractors to not list these works again after the fact, the court still held the defendant vicariously liable for the independent contractors’ infringement. (Id.) In other words, even if your web designer is the one who actually infringed on an existing copyright, you could still be held accountable for the actions of your independent contractor.
The “What Ifs”
What if you completely unaware of the infringement? Could you try to make the argument that as the employer, you did not know your independent contractor would or could be infringing on intellectual property? The court in Hitek Software LLC echoed the ruling in Rosen but added that an employer who had the right to supervise the infringing activity would still be vicariously liable “even if the defendant initially lacks knowledge of the infringement.” (See Hitek Software LLC v. Timios, Inc., (C.D.Cal. June 18, 2012, No. CV 12-709 CAS (AJWx)) 2012 U.S.Dist.LEXIS 86560, at *11.) In Hitek Software LLC, the alleged infringement occurred when Timios, Inc. (the “Defendant”) employed an independent contractor computer specialist who installed software for the Defendant using an illegally generated product key and spoofing the software activation process. (Id. at 3.) However, the court determined that the Defendants had the right and ability to “oversee, govern, control, and direct” the independent contractor at all relevant times and was therefore liable for the independent contractor’s actions. (Id. at 13.) The idea here is that if you had the right and ability to supervise your independent contractor during employment, you should have known better and are not excused by your ignorance.
What if the independent contractor was simply negligent? Would employers be absolved of liability? As a general rule, employers will not be held vicariously liable for the negligent acts of their independent contractors. (See Secci v. United Independant Taxi Drivers, Inc. (2017) 8 Cal.App.5th 846, 859 [214 Cal.Rptr.3d 379].) This rule has a few caveats and exceptions like the peculiar risk doctrine, which states an employer can be held liable for an independent contractor’s negligence if the contractor was hired to perform work that is inherently dangerous, and the contractor’s negligence causes injury to others. (Privette v. Superior Court (1993) 5 Cal.4th 689, 691 [21 Cal.Rptr.2d 72, 854 P.2d 721].) However, assuming you haven’t hired an independent contractor for work that is inherently dangerous (and without getting into whether the court’s current view will continue to prevail) courts still generally view copyright infringement as a strict liability tort. (See Educational Testing Serv. v. Simon (C.D.Cal. 1999) 95 F.Supp.2d 1081, 1087.) Plaintiffs can merely show the defendant used their authored work without permission (e.g., copied, distributed, or performed) in order to prove a prima facie case of copyright infringement. This essentially means that you will likely be unable to use your independent contractor’s negligence as a defense to vicarious liability for your independent contractor’s infringement.
The takeaway here is simple: ask for permission. When you are dealing with situations where you encounter authored work that catches your eye, and you plan on using the copyrighted material in some shape or form, make sure to ask for the owner’s permission. Not all owners or originators of copyrights will ask for money. In fact, many just want credit and recognition for their hard work. If you don’t have the budget (or maybe you just don’t like talking to people), find something that is public domain including free stock images and try to make it work (because you don’t really have that many other legal options). As an employer, make sure your independent contractor is taking the same precautions to avoid letters from firms like Koppi & Wright, PC to save yourself the headache.