Is good-faith copyright infringement likely to make you liable for damages?

A project is the work of many individual contributors, none of whom assigned rights and none of whom put their own copyright notices on the files. Someone later applies a false copyright to the whole work, claiming it is all owned by some corporate entity that never had rights to most of the code. Someone else later buys the rights to the project in an auction based on the false blanket copyright (that is, the sale of the rights to the project at auction is founded on the assumption the now-defunct corporation owned the entire codebase, which as per hypothesis is untrue) and releases the code under a nonrestrictive license. Is this last person in the chain, who was quite effectively lied to and never had any reason to think his title was other than legitimate, liable for damages if any of the actual owners of the code come looking for a fight? The corporation that acted in bad faith is long gone by this point, its assets parted out and sold off, and the corporate officers dead or retired.

Is it different if the files did have copyright notices on them but the person who released the code was assured they “didn’t matter”?

IANAL, but the first question I would ask is whether the original contributors were working on their own, or was it a “work for hire” by their employer. If so, then the employer would own the copyright and would be the one to go after the violators.

How is this different from innocently purchasing stolen goods? The last owner can be made to forfeit the goods and is not immune from civil suit. The outcome of the suit may hinge on the defense of innocence, but everything depends on the circumstances.

In the case of copyright, many other variables come into play. No copyright notice has been required since March 1, 1989. Since you’re mentioning codebase rather than articles, it seems probable that the work is more recent than 1989. The exact wording of the original contract is also crucial to any determination of ownership or rights assignments.

This is one for the lawyers. No general answer can be given outside of the specific facts of the case. The best outcome is a settlement, which happens in about 99.9% of all cases anyway.

FatBaldGuy: In the post, I specified (or I thought I did) that the coders kept ownership of their own work. I was thinking mainly in terms of an open-source project or a noncommercial work developed under the auspices of a corporation.

Exapno Mapcase: That makes sense. I was curious if there was a specific legal precept that would come into play. It’s kinda-but-not-really based on a part of a real event* but most of it is just my own curiosity.

*(Apparently, some termcap code was bad-faith claimed by SCO when in reality it was by non-SCO contributors who were operating under the assumption the whole shebang was BSD-licensed. Details in this compressed text file. Given that the monetary value of the termcap file in question is nearly zero, the odds of this going before a judge are as close to zero as is possible.)

When I was set-building for film, an editor I drank with (we never worked together, but some of us use to visit him for a beer in the editing suite) was involved in a similar issue.

The film had licenced a song from a musician who self-publishes, not knowing that there were TWO copyrights on the tune (I don’t remember at all what the actual deal was, it may have been music and lyrics were copyrighted seperately or something). Anyway, the second copyright holder sued the film company for infringement after the film was released.

Generally Master and Synch licences agreements/contracts include warranty clauses that specifically state that licensor warrants/guarantees that they hold all copyrights and/or have full authority to licence the work in its entirety. So they end up being responsible for any claims (and it often says so right in the contract. “If we get sued for using this thing you’ve licenced to us, you’ll be covering it.”) The film company acted in good faith, the musician is the one who screwed something up. I’m not sure how it was worked out, but the claim ended up falling on the first musician who (albeit out of naivete) acted in bad faith.

So in the OP’s case, when the False Copyright Holder sold the work to the Buyer, there was probably a similar warranty unless the lawyers involved were stupid. The Buyer would have bought it in good faith, the Fasle Copyright Holder was in breach, their warranty was a lie. Very naughty.

I would assume that the True Copyright Holders can sue the Buyer, but that the Buyer would turn around and sue the False Copyright Holder or somehow forward the claim on the the False guy. If False Holder exists no longer, I have no idea what the recourse would be, but it would be ugly all around. (True Holders out of their share of profits, Buyer facing an injunction etc.)

Who is ultimately found liable would probably be the False Holder, but collecting the judgment would be ecxeptionally difficult.

OK, I’m guessing there’s no clean, simple answer to this one, either: The Real Copyright Owners demand the Duped Buyer give them server logs so they can go after everyone who downloaded the code prior to their legal action. Is there no [del]balm in Gilead[/del] indemnity in this case? Normally, when you download code under a given license future license changes don’t affect you. In this case, of course, the license was never valid and you have no legal excuse to have anything at all.

This is what lawyers were invented for.