Copyright Laws on Piracy

by Phil M. Fowler
Piracy involves copyright infringement for financial gain.

Piracy involves copyright infringement for financial gain.

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The owner of a copyright has the legal right to exclude everybody else from using, reproducing, altering or distributing the copyrighted material without permission. A person who violates this exclusive right infringes the copyright, even if the violator does not earn any financial profit. Piracy is copyright infringement for the purpose of earning money. Common types of piracy include duplicating and reselling songs, albums or movies.

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Civil Liability

U.S. copyright laws provide the owner of a copyright with a legal remedy against anyone who engages in piracy of his copyrighted material. The owner can sue the infringer for money damages, as well as for an injunction ordering the infringer to stop the piracy. The copyright holder may recover either his actual damages caused by the piracy or "statutory" damages up to $150,000 per infringement. This means that an infringer who sells multiple pirated copies may be civilly liable for much more than $150,000.

Criminal Liability

U.S. copyright laws provide criminal penalties for "willful" copyright infringement, which can include piracy. Specifically, criminal liability may result from infringement for financial gain or commercial advantage. The penalty for such a criminal violation may include imprisonment for up to five years, a fine or both. Repeat violations can result in imprisonment for up to 10 years as well as additional fines.

International Law

International copyright law does not exist. Instead, the laws of each nation generally determine the rules regarding piracy within its own borders. However, the United States is a member of both the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works and Universal Copyright Convention. These two conventions generally allow for the recognition of copyrights among all nations included in the conventions. The conventions accomplish that goal by giving foreign authors, artists and producers of copyrighted material similar legal rights of exclusion in the foreign nation.

Intermediary Liability

A third-party communication or media provider, such as a cable company or Internet service provider, can potentially be liable for piracy committed by its customers. This is known as intermediary liability because it holds the intermediate distributor of the pirated content liable. Generally, intermediaries can avoid liability if they do not know of the piracy being committed through the use of their service. Once they learn of piracy, they can avoid liability by immediately taking steps to stop it.