Glossary created by Berkman Center team

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Statute of Limitations

A statute of limitations is a law that limits how long a person can wait to bring a legal action after a law is broken.

When the time limit specified by the statute of limitations has run out, or “tolled”, any future legal action is said to be "barred". For example, if the statute of limitations for a particular crime is 10 years, it is generally not possible to prosecute for that crime twelve years after it took place.

With respect to copyright law, the statute of limitations will describe how long after an act of infringement a rights-holder can wait to bring a suit. It will also limit the number of infringing acts for which the rights holder may seek damages. The length of the time limit varies between jurisdictions, and the exact nature of the limits varies as well.

For instance, in the United States, there is a three year statute of limitations for copyright violations, although this is a generic limit, not specific to copyright. This three year clock begins on the date of the most recent infringing act. However, some courts treat this as a “rolling” three years, meaning that a rights holder can only seek damages for acts within the three years prior to bringing suit. Other courts have held that even if the infringing began more than three years prior to the suit, if the infringement was ongoing, and at least one act was within the last three years, the rights holder may seek damages for all of the infringing acts.

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Statutory Exemption

An exemption to copyright law protections explicitly written into statute.

While a particular behavior might be infringing under the general description of copyright, it is specifically exempted, usually for public policy reasons. For example, copying books without the express permission of the rights-holder is a violation of copyright. However, making copies expressly for the purpose of providing the disabled with access to the book is exempted by statute. Therefore, such behavior is not infringing.

Other statutory exemptions include copying for certain academic uses, especially instructional activities, copying for archival purposes or to deal with broken or obsolete technology, distance education, and more.

The Berne Convention places some limits on what statutory exemptions a country can have in its national legislation with its three-step test, saying “"[i]t shall be a matter for legislation in the countries of the Union to permit the reproduction of such [literary and artistic] works in certain special cases, provided that such reproduction does not conflict with a normal exploitation of the work and does not unreasonably prejudice the legitimate interests of the author".

See also:

  • Berne Convention

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