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Copyright and statute of limitations - What do I need to know?

Personal intellectual creations are subject to copyright protection, which doesn’t require any entries in an official register. This protection arises already with the creation of a work, which may be of a scientific, artistic or literary nature.

Urheberrecht Verjährung
Do you have questions about copyright and deadlines? Call (040) 32 55 32 28 or send an email to info@kanzlei-bennek.de.

Only the author is entitled to moral rights. This means that only he has the right to exploit his work commercially and enjoy protection against any distortion of it. But how long does the copyright last, and is there a statute of limitations?


1. Copyright: Protection of protectable works
2. Copyright and limitation: Beginning of the limitation period and its duration
3. Copyright limitation: Longer limitation period of ten years

1. Copyright: Protection of protectable works

Authorship begins with the creation of a work. It doesn’t end until 70 years after the author's death. Only then is the work in the public domain, meaning it can be freely exploited without the consent of the author or his legal successor.

Examples of protectable works are legally standardized in Section 2 (1) UrhG (Copyright Act). Works eligible for protection include:

  • Musical works
  • Photographic works
  • Linguistic works, which include all types of written works, for example books, texts, speeches and also computer software
  • Artistic works including designs as well as works of architecture and building art

With the use of the Internet, the authorship of works has gained in importance. This is due to the massive increase in unauthorized access to copyrighted works.

While some aren’t aware of any culpability when using third-party content, others aren’t afraid to steal and exploit other people's data. It doesn't matter whether it's a case of ignorance on the user’s part or targeted data theft - both are punishable by law and carry immense fines.

Anyone who speculates that they won't get caught is acting naively. After all, entire armies of lawyers and law firms are busy uncovering copyright infringements and claiming horrendous amounts of damages on behalf of their clients.

2. Copyright and limitation: Beginning of the limitation period and its duration

Section 64 UrhG contains the principle that copyright in a protectable work and all rights associated with copyright expire seventy years after the death of the author.

However, this doesn’t mean that an author can take as long as he likes before taking legal action against a copyright infringement.

The person whose copyright has been infringed has several options for taking action against the copyright infringement. The copyright limitation period depends on the choice of the claim chosen by the injured party.

The following claims are available, with which the injured party can take action against the party who has infringed the copyright:

  • Claim for injunction against copyright infringement
  • Compensation for the damage caused by the infringement of the copyright
  • Right to destruction of illegally made duplicates

Two of the aforementioned claims become time-barred after three years in accordance with Section 102 UrhG in conjunction with Section 194 BGB (German Civil Code). This applies to the claim for injunction, which the injured party regularly asserts with the help of a cease-and-desist declaration, and to the claim for destruction of illegally produced duplicates.

This means that the copyright limitation period begins at the end of the year in which the author became aware of the infringement of copyright and the person of the infringer or should have become aware of it without gross negligence.

If the author had no knowledge of the infringement of the copyright and the person of the infringer, the aforementioned claims become time-barred after ten years at the latest, which applies equally to claims for damages.

3. Copyright limitation: Longer limitation period of ten years

The ten-year limitation period also applies to claims for damages. This means that the injured party can assert a claim for damages against the damaging partner within ten years.

In this respect, damages take on a special role in connection with the statute of limitations. This is the opinion of the Federal Court of Justice, which manifested this limitation period in its ruling of May 12, 2016 - BGH I ZR 48/15.

If the infringer of the copyright has obtained something at the expense of the author or has enriched himself at the expense of the author, he owes the injured party the restitution of this so-called enrichment. The legal basis is Section 102 sentence 2 UrhG in conjunction with Section 852 BGB.

The copyright limitation period in this case is subject to a period of ten years from the date of its creation. This means that in the event of unjust enrichment on the part of the damaging party, the longer limitation period of ten years applies.

In addition, the injured party has a claim for reimbursement of expenses. This includes, among other things, the costs for investigations and for the information procedure carried out in the event of a warning.

This claim for reimbursement is subject to the short limitation period of three years. The same applies to the costs charged by the opposing lawyer.

Do you have questions about the statute of limitations in copyright law or would you like to make an appointment?

Make an appointment now!

Image credits: © Encho Enevski | panthermedia.net

Marco Bennek
I started working as a lawyer in 2006 and have been advising clients in competition and trademark law for more than 10 years. Since June 2015 I have been a specialist attorney for industrial property rights and since May 2013 a partner in the firm of HELMKE Attorneys at Law and Tax Advisors and Patent Attorneys. I studied law in Hamburg, Madrid, and Wellington (New Zealand) and hold a Master of Laws (LL.M.).
Rechtsanwalt Marco Bennek
Lawyer Marco Bennek – trademark law, copyright, competition law and IT law in Hamburg
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