17 U.S. Code § 405. Notice of copyright: Omission of notice on certain copies and phonorecords
Effect of Omission on Copyright Protection. The provisions of section 405(a) make clear that the notice requirements of sections 401, 402, and 403 are not absolute and that, unlike the law now in effect, the outright omission of a copyright notice does not automatically forfeit protection and throw the work into the public domain. This not only represents a major change in the theoretical framework of American copyright law, but it also seems certain to have immediate practical consequences in a great many individual cases. Under the proposed law a work published without any copyright notice will still be subject to statutory protection for at least 5 years, whether the omission was partial or total, unintentional or deliberate.
Under the general scheme of the bill, statutory copyright protection is secured automatically when a work is created, and is not lost when the work is published, even if the copyright notice is omitted entirely. Subsection (a) of section 405 provides that omission of notice, whether intentional or unintentional, does not invalidate the copyright if either of two conditions is met:
(1) if “no more than a relatively small number” of copies or phonorecords have been publicly distributed without notice; or
(2) if registration for the work has already been made, or is made within 5 years after the publication without notice, and a reasonable effort is made to add notice to copies or phonorecords publicly distributed in the United States after the omission is discovered.
Thus, if notice is omitted from more than a “relatively small number” of copies or phonorecords, copyright is not lost immediately, but the work will go into the public domain if no effort is made to correct the error or if the work is not registered within 5 years.
Section 405(a) takes a middle-ground approach in an effort to encourage use of a copyright notice without causing unfair and unjustifiable forfeitures on technical grounds. Clause (1) provides that, as long as the omission is from “no more than a relatively small number of copies or phonorecords,” there is no effect upon the copyright owner’s rights except in the case of an innocent infringement covered by section 405(b); there is no need for registration or for efforts to correct the error if this clause is applicable. The phrase “relatively small number” is intended to be less restrictive than the phrase “a particular copy or copies” now in section 21 of the present law [section 21 of former title 21].
Under clause (2) of subsection (a), the first condition for curing an omission from a larger number of copies is that registration be made before the end of 5 years from the defective publication. This registration may have been made before the omission took place or before the work had been published in any form and, since the reasons for the omission have no bearing on the validity of copyright, there would be no need for the application to refer to them. Some time limit for registration is essential and the 5-year period is reasonable and consistent with the period provided in section 410(c).
The second condition established by clause (2) is that the copyright owner make a “reasonable effort,” after discovering his error, to add the notice to copies or phonorecords distributed thereafter. This condition is specifically limited to copies or phonorecords publicly distributed in the United States, since it would be burdensome and impractical to require an American copyright owner to police the activities of foreign licensees in this situation.
The basic notice requirements set forth in sections 401(a) and 402(a) are limited to cases where a work is published “by authority of the copyright owner” and, in prescribing the effect of omission of notice, section 405(a) refers only to omission “from copies or phonorecords publicly distributed by authority of the copyright owner.” The intention behind this language is that, where the copyright owner authorized publication of the work, the notice requirements would not be met if copies or phonorecords are publicly distributed without a notice, even if he expected a notice to be used. However, if the copyright owner authorized publication only on the express condition that all copies or phonorecords bear a prescribed notice, the provisions of section 401 or 402 and of section 405 would not apply since the publication itself would not be authorized. This principle is stated directly in section 405(a)(3).
Effect of Omission on Innocent Infringers. In addition to the possibility that copyright protection will be forfeited under section 405(a)(2) if the notice is omitted, a second major inducement to use of the notice is found in subsection (b) of section 405. That provision, which limits the rights of a copyright owner against innocent infringers under certain circumstances, would be applicable whether the notice has been omitted from a large number or from a “relatively small number” of copies. The general postulates underlying the provision are that a person acting in good faith and with no reason to think otherwise should ordinarily be able to assume that a work is in the public domain if there is no notice on an authorized copy or phonorecord and that, if he relies on this assumption, he should be shielded from unreasonable liability.
Under section 405(b) an innocent infringer who acts “in reliance upon an authorized copy or phonorecord from which the copyright notice has been omitted”, and who proves that he was misled by the omission, is shielded from liability for actual or statutory damages with respect to “any infringing acts committed before receiving actual notice” of registration. Thus, where the infringement is completed before actual notice has been served—as would be the usual case with respect to relatively minor infringements by teachers, librarians, journalists, and the like—liability, if any, would be limited to the profits the infringer realized from the act of infringement. On the other hand, where the infringing enterprise is one running over a period of time, the copyright owner would be able to seek an injunction against continuation of the infringement, and to obtain full monetary recovery for all infringing acts committed after he had served notice of registration. Persons who undertake major enterprises of this sort should check the Copyright Office registration records before starting, even where copies have been published without notice.
The purpose of the second sentence of subsection (b) is to give the courts broad discretion to balance the equities within the framework of section 405 [this section]. Where an infringer made profits from infringing acts committed innocently before receiving notice from the copyright owner, the court may allow or withhold their recovery in light of the circumstances. The court may enjoin an infringement or may permit its continuation on condition that the copyright owner be paid a reasonable license fee.
Removal of Notice by Others. Subsection (c) of section 405 involves the situation arising when, following an authorized publication with notice, someone further down the chain of commerce removes, destroys, or obliterates the notice. The courts dealing with this problem under the present law, especially in connection with copyright notices on the selvage of textile fabrics, have generally upheld the validity of a notice that was securely attached to the copies when they left the control of the copyright owner, even though removal of the notice at some later stage was likely. This conclusion is incorporated in subsection (c).
The effective date of the Berne Convention Implementation Act of 1988, referred to in subsecs. (a) and (b), is Mar. 1, 1989, see section 13 of Pub. L. 100–568, set out as an Effective Date of 1988 Amendment note under section 101 of this title.
1997—Subsec. (b). Pub. L. 105–80 substituted “condition for permitting the continuation” for “condition or permitting the continuation”.
1988—Pub. L. 100–568, § 7(e)(3), substituted “notice on certain copies and phonorecords” for “notice” in section catchline.
Subsec. (a). Pub. L. 100–568, § 7(e)(1), substituted “With respect to copies and phonorecords publicly distributed by authority of the copyright owner before the effective date of the Berne Convention Implementation Act of 1988, the omission of the copyright notice described in” for “The omission of the copyright notice prescribed by”.
Subsec. (b). Pub. L. 100–568, § 7(e)(2), substituted “omitted and which was publicly distributed by authority of the copyright owner before the effective date of the Berne Convention Implementation Act of 1988,” for “omitted,”.
Amendment by Pub. L. 100–568 effective Mar. 1, 1989, with any cause of action arising under this title before such date being governed by provisions in effect when cause of action arose, see section 13 of Pub. L. 100–568, set out as a note under section 101 of this title.