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Asked & Answered: Mechanics of copyright infringement suit.

Q: What are the mechanics of a copyright infringement law suit? How does it all work? As an example, let us say a non-U.S. based writer believes his work has been infringed by a person or entity in the U.S. Could a non-U.S. lawyer file suit? Where would the case be heard and what would be the approximate time line? What effect could the suit have on a company set to produce the disputed work?

A: OK, this question is actually much more complex than it might seem. It raises issues covered by several different fields of law. Copyright, Constitutional, Civil Procedure, and International Law, to mention a few. So, here's a very abbreviated summary.

First off, a work protected under another country's copyright law will (in almost all cases) be protected by U.S. copyright law as well. The U.S. is signatory to the Berne Convention, an international copyright law treaty, and has agreed to extend protection to works created by foreign authors.

Generally, an aggreived party (Plaintiff) can file suit for copyright infringement against a U.S. based infringer (Defendant) in the Federal Court district in which the Defendant resides, or where the Defendant has certain ‘minimum contacts'. (Copyright is federal law, so the federal courts have jurisdiction).

A non-us lawyer MAY be permitted to appear in U.S. Court, but this may depend on the local rules of court. (Federal court cases can be very tricky, though, so it's probably best to have a U.S. lawyer handle things, with the non-us lawyer sitting in the second chair.)

Filing a lawsuit involves preparation of a document called the “complaint” which details the particulars about the parties, and the facts giving rise to the claim(s). The complaint is then SERVED on the defendant by a process server, whereupon the defendant has a period of time (usually 20-30 days) in which to respond by filing an ‘answer' admitting or denying the facts alleged in the complaint. Once these ‘pleadings' are on file, the Court will hear various motions, permit the parties to engage in ‘discovery' of one-another's evidence, and ultimately set the matter for a trial. Typically cases take 1-3 years to make their way from initial filing to the trial, and verdict. If any issues are presented to the appeals courts, things may take several more years.

Generally, the mere pendency of a lawsuit will not legally prevent a producer from moving forward with a film, but the financial risks may lead the producer to drop the project or place it ‘on the shelf' pending resolution in the Courts. If appropriate, a plaintiff CAN ask the court to issue an injunction restraining the producer from proceeding, but such injunctions are rarely granted.

If you feel your work has been infringed, it's important to act swiftly to protect your rights. Some cases may be subject to a very short window of time in which you must file your claim, so contact a lawyer immediately when you learn of a possible infringement.

This is intended as general information only and does not establish an attorney-client relationship. It is not a substitute for a private, independent consultation with an attorney selected to advise you after a full investigation of the facts and law relevant to your matter. We will not be responsible for readers’ detrimental reliance upon the information appearing in this feature.


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