The 20th anniversary of the creation of the first popular peer-to-peer file-sharing platform passed late last year with little fanfare. But back in its heyday, Napster stood the music industry on its head, sending major labels (Sony, Universal, EMI, etc.) into a lawsuit frenzy. Lawsuits targeted the creators of the wildly popular Napster, but also posited that those who used the P2P app to download and share mp3 copies of copyright-protected songs were directly violating the copyrights of both artists and labels.
After filing tens of thousands of suits against people who downloaded and shared files, the music industry gave up trying to punish individual P2P users in 2008.
Limits of copyright protection
But if the music industry exhumed the legal strategy and resumed suing individuals for alleged copyright infringement, it would have to contend with – as all copyright holders must – the statute of limitations in copyright law.
Let’s say you downloaded and shared a Neil Young song in 2000. Could the music industry expect compensation if it sued you today for that apparent copyright infringement? No. Copyright owners can bring suits for three years from the date of the last infringement.
If the last infringement occurred in 2000, the deadline to file a suit passed in 2003.
Effects of repeated infringement
However, if you downloaded and shared a Neil Young song every year on November 12 (the Canadian-American musician’s birthday), a new three-year statute of limitations was launched every time an infringement occurred.
So, if you download a Young song on Neil’s birthday this year, the statute of limitations will extend until November 12, 2023.
Three years of damages
It’s important to note that the copyright holder is only entitled to damages for the three-year period that ends on the day the lawsuit is filed, however. So if Mr. Young filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against you today, damages would be limited to those accrued in the three-year period that ends today. He would not be entitled to damages from any previous years.
Of course, the statute of limitations extends far beyond Neil Young’s music. It applies to all copyright-protected original expressions of ideas in sounds, words and pictures, protecting the copyright owner’s right to reproduce, perform, display and distribute their work.