Technically, copyright misuse is a defense that has been recognized in the federal courts but is not codified in our copyright law. In a misuse claim, if a copyright owner is found to be claiming more copyright protection than the law gives, that owner may be barred from enforcing any copyright protection until they stop making the exaggerated claim. Someone sued for infringement can raise the defense that the copyright owner has claimed too much and a court may find that even genuine infringement should be excused on that basis.
In a recent complaint to the Federal Trade Commission, however, a computer industry group took the copyright misuse defense and went on the offensive. The Computer & Communications Industry Association has filed a complaint with the FTC alleging that the National Football League, Major League Baseball, NBC/Universal and several other large content producers are engaging in unfair and deceptive trade practices by claiming copyright protection they are not entitled to. One example, discussed earlier on this site, is the copyright warning read on sports broadcasts that claims to prohibit “accounts and descriptions of this game” without written permission from the sports organizations. In spite of this dire warning, the NFL cannot prevent a water-cooler discussion of last night’s game; accounts and descriptions of the facts of the event are fine unless they are “substantially similar” to copyrighted expression, and even repeating the words of a broadcast description may be fair use, which, by definition, is permitted without authorization.
What the CCIA essentially is complaining about is copyright misuse – exaggerated claims designed to intimidate consumers and prevent them from doing things they are perfectly free to do under the law. On offense it is called an unfair trade practice; on defense it would be copyright misuse. But whichever side of the ball we are on, the idea that copyright claims can be overstated is important; consumers and users should understand the genuine contours of copyright protection and take full advantage of the educational and creative uses that the law does permit.
For those who are interested, you can find the complete complain here.