Author Of To Kill A Mockingbird Sues Agent For Swiping Her Copyright

from the actual-copyright-theft? dept

I know that the big copyright guys now love to use the term "copyright theft" to describe mere infringement. But if the story presented by Harper Lee, the 87-year-old author of To Kill A Mockingbird, in a new lawsuit is accurate, it appears that she's one of the few actual victims of copyright theft. She's now sued her former literary agent Samuel Pinkus, claiming that he effectively tricked her into signing away her copyright on the work to Pinkus' company, Keystone Literary.
Lee, who has failing eyesight and hearing, was residing in an assisted-living facility in 2007 after suffering a stroke when she signed a document assigning her copyright to Pinkus’s company, according to the complaint. While the copyright was re- assigned to Lee last year after legal action and Pinkus was discharged as Lee’s agent, he was still receiving royalties from the novel as of this year, according to the complaint.

“Pinkus knew that Harper Lee was an elderly woman with physical infirmities that made it difficult for her to read and see,” Gloria Phares, Lee’s lawyer, said in the complaint. “Harper Lee had no idea she had assigned her copyright” to Pinkus’s company.
I've been trying to find the case in PACER and have so far failed (so if anyone has better luck, please let me know -- also shame on the news media for failing to post the actual filing). Though, in doing so, I discovered that Pinkus has been involved in a few other legal spats with authors, including with the heirs of John Steinbeck in a key case about termination rights and copyright.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    Ninja (profile), May 7th, 2013 @ 3:58am

    One more reason copyright should be nontransferable. Obviously that's not in the best interests of the MAFIAA...

     

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  2.  
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    yaga (profile), May 7th, 2013 @ 5:25am

    Re:

    What does this have to do with the MAFIAA? This is just a scumbag that figured he could scam an old lady. That's bad enough without having to amp it up with a completely unfounded and unnecessary attack on anyone else.

     

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  3.  
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    Anonymous Coward, May 7th, 2013 @ 5:40am

    What does this have to do with the MAFIAA?

    It's a parallel case. They do this all the time as "Work for hire" agreements with musicians.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4.  
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    jameshogg (profile), May 7th, 2013 @ 5:40am

    Silly copyright apologists who think it is justified to lock out the original artist from his/her OWN WORKS.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5.  
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    DannyB (profile), May 7th, 2013 @ 5:49am

    Re:

    Copyright is not now and never was about protecting creators.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 7th, 2013 @ 5:50am

    if copyright were to be disbanded, there wouldn't be this sort of problem, would there?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7.  
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    yaga (profile), May 7th, 2013 @ 5:55am

    Re: What does this have to do with the MAFIAA?

    Work for hire is COMPLETELY different than this case.

     

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  8. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
     
    identicon
    out_of_the_blue, May 7th, 2013 @ 6:03am

    "one of the few actual victims" -- Right, if omit movie studios

    and other copyright owners being ripped off every day on The Pirate Bay and "file hosts"!

    Good one, Mike. The hyphenated "copyright-theft" insidiously but clearly conflates this fraudulent re-assignment of copyright with ALL copyrighted works, then slants it as if theft of the income from copyrighted works is exceeding rare.

     

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  9.  
    identicon
    bob, May 7th, 2013 @ 6:04am

    Re:

    If you can't transfer it, you can't sell it. And that makes it worth much, much less. What's the point then?

    If the artist can't sell the outright copyright-- as they can't do with so-called "artistic rights"-- then the publishers/purchasers will craft exclusive licenses that do much the same thing.

     

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  10.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 7th, 2013 @ 6:06am

    Re: "one of the few actual victims" -- Right, if omit movie studios

    ...In what way was royalties only going to the studio....oh, wait, you're right. Movie studios steal all the time.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11.  
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    Will "scifantasy" Frank (profile), May 7th, 2013 @ 6:07am

    Outpaced

    I went looking for the PACER filing too, and even though there were occasional references to the case number (13-3000, Lee v. Pinkus), I couldn't find it. (Those same references also said the case was in both SDNY District and SDNY Bankruptcy, so I think there may be some issues to be sorted...)

     

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  12.  
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    jameshogg (profile), May 7th, 2013 @ 6:07am

    Re: "one of the few actual victims" -- Right, if omit movie studios

    I love how copyright believers "slant" the idea that copyright solves the free-rider problem and pretend that someone can't take from the artist without paying through means of borrowed/resold DVDs.

     

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  13.  
    identicon
    Rich, May 7th, 2013 @ 6:15am

    Re: "one of the few actual victims" -- Right, if omit movie studios

    Keep trying. You may create a cogent argument someday.

     

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  14.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 7th, 2013 @ 6:16am

    I'm sure memory issues also played a part in this, not just losing her vision and hearing. I have a nearly 92 year old grandfather, who's in great shape for a 92 year old, but he's definitely been showing signs of memory issues in recent years, even though he seems perfectly normal most of the time.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15.  
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    silverscarcat (profile), May 7th, 2013 @ 6:17am

    Re: Re:

    Because, if the MAFIAA can't get their hands on copyright, they wouldn't push for strong copyrights, since they wouldn't be able to (ab)use them as much.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16.  
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    PaulT (profile), May 7th, 2013 @ 6:18am

    Re: Re: "one of the few actual victims" -- Right, if omit movie studios

    One the (very) occasional random day where he responds to what an article is actually saying, rather than a garbled fictional re-interpretation, he's been known to actually state a truth here and there. It's rare but I believe I've seen it at least once.

    Today is clearly not one of those days.

     

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  17.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 7th, 2013 @ 6:23am

    Re: "one of the few actual victims" -- Right, if omit movie studios

    "The hyphenated "copyright-theft" insidiously but clearly conflates this fraudulent re-assignment of copyright with ALL copyrighted works, then slants it as if theft of the income from copyrighted works is exceeding rare."

    Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster (Superman)
    Jack Kirby (Most of Marvel Comics' characters pre-1970)

    Apparently the boy's corporate masters paid his bills again.

     

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  18.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 7th, 2013 @ 6:25am

    Re:

    A sad case both of copyright theft AND fraud against the elderly.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 7th, 2013 @ 6:28am

    See, Mike.

    Copyright provided an incentive to create.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 7th, 2013 @ 6:32am

    Re:

    Create what? Are you suggesting that, sans copyright, To Kill A Mockingbird wouldn't have been written? Explain Shakespeare. None of his plays were copyrighted in his lifetime.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21.  
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    Josef Anvil (profile), May 7th, 2013 @ 6:33am

    Re:

    See, Mike.

    Copyright provided an incentive to create...


    Residual income and lawsuits

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22.  
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    out_of_the_blue, May 7th, 2013 @ 6:36am

    This is terrible, for shame trying to take copyright from elderly woman. They should try talking a walk around in her shoes.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23.  
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    Zakida Paul (profile), May 7th, 2013 @ 6:47am

    Re: Re:

    "What's the point then?"

    Um, the real reason creators create anything? The love of the creative process? The joy they experience when their work is enjoyed by millions?

    That is the REAL value of creative work and that makes the great works priceless.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24.  
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    Zakida Paul (profile), May 7th, 2013 @ 6:48am

    Re: "one of the few actual victims" -- Right, if omit movie studios

    Moron

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25.  
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    Zakida Paul (profile), May 7th, 2013 @ 6:49am

    Re:

    Citation needed

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26.  
    identicon
    PRMan, May 7th, 2013 @ 6:49am

    Re: Re:

    Contracts are limited to 7 years in California, so that would make a big difference.

     

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  27.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 7th, 2013 @ 6:50am

    this is more fraud than anything else. (incidentally, this kind of situation is exactly why contract law specifies that you must be able to understand a contract for it to be binding. That and the obvious problem of a contract in a foreign language.

     

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  28.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 7th, 2013 @ 6:54am

    Re: Re: "one of the few actual victims" -- Right, if omit movie studios

    I often hear of borrowed/used games being referred to as theft these days, but that idiocy has died down a bit in recent days

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 7th, 2013 @ 7:05am

    Re: Re:

    bob shows his true colors here asking what's the point of copyright if publishers cannot accrue massive stacks of them. Thanks for the honesty bob.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  30.  
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    Ninja (profile), May 7th, 2013 @ 7:28am

    Re: Re: Re:

    That, thanks.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  31.  
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    average_joe (profile), May 7th, 2013 @ 7:33am

    I've been trying to find the case in PACER and have so far failed (so if anyone has better luck, please let me know -- also shame on the news media for failing to post the actual filing).

    Let me Google that for ya: http://lmgtfy.com/?q=harper+pinkus+complaint+filetype%3Apdf

    First result: http://media.publishersmarketplace.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/harperleecomplaint.pdf

    It's in federal court because of diversity. It's not a federal question. The causes of action are all state law claims.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  32.  
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    jupiterkansas (profile), May 7th, 2013 @ 7:38am

    Re: Re:

    Because you can't write a contract for life + 70 years.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  33.  
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    non-anonymous coward (profile), May 7th, 2013 @ 7:52am

    Real Reason

    I'm just glad to see that the long copyright term is so clearly encouraging this artist to create new works, thereby benefiting society.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  34.  
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    Mike Masnick (profile), May 7th, 2013 @ 8:05am

    Re:

    Let me Google that for ya: http://lmgtfy.com/?q=harper+pinkus+complaint+filetype%3Apdf

    I had Googled exactly that yesterday and Google hadn't been able to find it yet. Nor had PACER.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  35.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 7th, 2013 @ 8:17am

    Re: Re:

    Yeah, I couldn't find it on PACER or Google when I looked last weekend. It must've just shown up.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  36.  
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    gorehound (profile), May 7th, 2013 @ 8:18am

    Re: What does this have to do with the MAFIAA?

    MAFIAA does this kind of stuff to rip off others and it is like a long practice of theirs.
    The shady World of scumbag Lawyers, Accounting, and Big Copyright.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  37.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 7th, 2013 @ 8:27am

    Re: Re: What does this have to do with the MAFIAA?

    Here's a recent opinion from an appellate court with EMI defeating a claim that its accounting practices were bogus: http://www.scribd.com/doc/139799485/Ellington

    That won't get covered on Techdirt, though, because (gasp!) the challenger was getting exactly what had been bargained for and the claim of bogus accounting was bogus.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  38.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 7th, 2013 @ 8:35am

    Re: Re: Re: What does this have to do with the MAFIAA?

    Wow, so it is OK to have a foreign subsidiary you own charge you so much for something that you don't have to pay the copyright holder. Glad to know that's all legal it gives me lots of faith in copyright, the DOJ and possible copyright reform.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  39.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 7th, 2013 @ 8:37am

    Re: Re:

    It probably started that way until the rich (MAFIAA) and smart(lawyers) figured out how to take advantage of it.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  40.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 7th, 2013 @ 8:46am

    Re: Re: Re: What does this have to do with the MAFIAA?

    Dude, people are attacking the legal basis for penalizing transfer pricing too. A few legal rulings are not gonna change that feeling.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  41.  
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    dennis deems (profile), May 7th, 2013 @ 9:08am

    Re: Re: Re:

    It didn't. It started as a way for government to keep printers in check by giving them a monopoly.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  42.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 7th, 2013 @ 9:15am

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Mea culpa, I must remember to preview to check I have closed Tags.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  43.  
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    yaga (profile), May 7th, 2013 @ 9:25am

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    And that still has nothing to do with the story.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  44.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 7th, 2013 @ 9:25am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: What does this have to do with the MAFIAA?

    The deal was that Ellington got 50% of net proceeds of foreign publication. Ellington got exactly that. The fact that EMI became the foreign publisher is irrelevant.

    Now, what are you basing your claim that EMI's foreign publishers overcharged on? Do you have any evidence of that?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  45.  
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    Ophelia Millais (profile), May 7th, 2013 @ 10:41am

    Re: Real Reason

    This is exactly my problem with Harper Lee. I mean, it's a shame that someone has taken advantage of her, and I do hope she gets this matter resolved. But although she's someone who said that writing was her true calling, her literary output has been a bit underwhelming. In fact, she's exactly who comes to my mind whenever someone insists that long and strongly enforced copyright terms are necessary to encourage new creations by the most talented artists. What has she been encouraged to do? She wrote exactly one book, then kicked back and lived off the royalties for over 50 years.

    Under the copyright law in effect at the time she wrote it, it would be slated to enter the public domain in 2016, I think, so Pinkus wouldn't have as much incentive to swindle the little old lady in her twilight years. Had it entered the public domain sooner, the swindle wouldn't have happened at all, and she may well have had an incentive to contribute more great works to society.

     

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  46.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 7th, 2013 @ 10:58am

    Re: Re: Real Reason

    In fact, she's exactly who comes to my mind whenever someone insists that long and strongly enforced copyright terms are necessary to encourage new creations by the most talented artists. What has she been encouraged to do? She wrote exactly one book, then kicked back and lived off the royalties for over 50 years.

    The copyright she received for Mockingbird was to encourage her to write Mockingbird--so it worked exactly as it was supposed to. Obviously, that copyright has been a very valuable reward, and it incentivized her quite well given the fact that she wrote the book. That she is not incentivized to write another book is not a failing of copyright law. She clearly can be and has been incentivized by copyright law. She just hasn't been motivated to write another book for her own personal reasons. You could just as well argue that the copyright law isn't strong enough since it didn't incentivize her to write another book.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  47.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 7th, 2013 @ 11:12am

    Re: Re: Re: Real Reason

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  48.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 7th, 2013 @ 11:27am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Real Reason

    Hey, I don't think Lee's failure to write another book shows that copyright is too strong or too weak. I don't think one point of data shows anything. I'm merely pointing out the other poster's error in assuming it shows that copyright is too strong. So I think the fallacy is hers, not mine.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  49.  
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    Sheogorath (profile), May 7th, 2013 @ 12:06pm

    Hey, Maximalists!

    This is an actual case of copyright theft. Now do you see the difference between it and infringement?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  50.  
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    Ophelia Millais (profile), May 7th, 2013 @ 2:12pm

    Re: Re: Re: Real Reason

    Rather than begging the question, I'd say this was a straw man. We did not argue that she shouldn't have had any copyright at all, but your reply is written as if we did.

    Regardless, you suggest she only wrote the book because she knew she could get (at the time) 56 years'-worth of royalties. I believe that it would still have been written even if she could've only gotten, say, 10 years'-worth. Since writing was her true calling, maybe even less than that. And I believe that the prospect of the gravy train coming to an end so "soon" would've helped motivate her to bestow more great works upon the public.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  51.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 7th, 2013 @ 3:03pm

    Re: Hey, Maximalists!

    I see a difference, but I think both are theft. Theft is a broad term that encompasses interferences with a person's rights in a given thing. The interference with fraudulently getting someone to sign over their copyright is greater than the interference with infringement of that copyright, but both are interferences nonetheless.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  52.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 7th, 2013 @ 3:04pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Real Reason

    Fair enough. I still think that the argument that she didn't write again because she didn't think the rewards were sufficient is equally plausible.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  53.  
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    Rikuo (profile), May 7th, 2013 @ 3:33pm

    Re:

    Here's a question. Copyright is supposed to be for the progress of the arts. It says an author can create, receive exclusive distribution for their work, so that they can sell and then go on to create more works.
    Where's Harper Lee's other books? I highly respect her, I studied Mockingbird in school and the movie adaptation is one of my favourite movies of all time, but it seems to me that Lee has failed to live up to the societal contract. She published her book in 1961 and then...stopped. She basically receives money for work she completed 52 years ago, and this is backed up by legal force, which to me is a farce.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  54.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 7th, 2013 @ 5:13pm

    Re: Re:

    The societal contract is that if she writes Mockingbird, she gets exclusive rights to it. She lived up to her side of the bargain. The contract isn't that if she writes Mockingbird, then she gets exclusive rights in it so that she will create more works. If she wrote another book, the rights in that book would have been the other side of the bargain--not the rights in Mockingbird.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  55.  
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    Ophelia Millais (profile), May 8th, 2013 @ 2:10am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Real Reason

    My understanding is that she wrote Mockingbird after friends & family encouraged and subsidized the couple of years she spent on it, and she didn't write again mainly just because she hated the limelight. Maybe that's related to fear of criticism/failure, who knows.

    We can speculate as to what degree copyright and the promise of a lifetime-plus of royalties played in her life and career choices, but to be fair, she doesn't owe the public anything, nor has she made the kind of arguments we're railing against here, and her current dispute has nothing to do with it. I hope I didn't imply those things.

    Like I said, I just think of her when I hear defenders of copyright, in litigation and legislation, insist that creativity depends on long, strongly enforced terms.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  56.  
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    PaulT (profile), May 8th, 2013 @ 2:52am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Real Reason

    "I still think that the argument that she didn't write again because she didn't think the rewards were sufficient is equally plausible."

    I disagree. I can see many personal reasons why Lee didn't wish to write a new book, some of which are well documented. I can see the argument that the fact that she got to live most of the rest of her life with guaranteed royalties for a highly successful debut could have *discouraged* the writing of a further novel.

    I can't, however, fathom a person going "well, I'd *love* to write a book, but I'll only get 56 years of royalties so what's the point?". Especially since that term was significantly extended during the time frame being addressed.

    I'd love to hear a reasonable argument to say why 56 years is too short but life+X years past death is just enough for a person to say "yeah, let's write this book", but I don't see it being plausible even if money is the only motivator.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  57.  
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    Sheogorath (profile), May 9th, 2013 @ 2:26pm

    Re: Re: Hey, Maximalists!

    Actually, theft is taking something without the owner's knowledgeable consent, thus denying them use of it, whereas infringement involves making an illegal copy, leaving the original in place for the owner to do what they want with it.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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