Is Copyright Violation a Crime?

by Karyn Maier
Copyright laws protect owners of intellectual property from misuse of their work.

Copyright laws protect owners of intellectual property from misuse of their work.

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The term, copyright refers to rights of ownership afforded to the authors of original works and the protection of those rights. A “work” is defined as intellectual property that is published or unpublished, including musical, artistic, literary and dramatic works. In short, it means that only the person who created the work has a legal right to distribute it in any form to make a profit. Willful copyright violation, or copyright infringement, is the act of violating any of a copyright owner's exclusive rights; it is a crime.

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Copyright Basics

Copyright becomes effective as soon as it is set into a fixed, tangible form for the first time, whether visual, audio, digital or in some other medium. Copyright gives the creator of the work the exclusive authority to copy, publicly perform or display, distribute or sell, lease or rent the work. Prior to the introduction of the 1976 Copyright Act, which amended the Copyright Act of 1909, it was necessary to publish the work with a notice of copyright to obtain federal copyright. However, as per the provisions of the 1976 Copyright Act, copyright also extends to non-published materials. One thing that has not changed is that copyright infringement to make a financial gain is a federal crime under Title 17 of the United States Code.

Copyright Limitations

There are certain limitations to copyright. Sections 107 through 121 of the 1976 Copyright Act describe these limitations and even include some exemptions from the law. One of the most significant is the doctrine of “fair use.” There is no exact formula to determine fair use of copyrighted material in terms of a specific number of words, nor does merely attributing the original source of the work create exemption. Instead, certain factors are considered to determine fair use, such as whether use of the work is for educational purposes or commercial benefit or if its use will diminish the market value of the work for the copyright holder.

Copyright Violations

According to Section 501(a) and (b) of USC Title 17, the owner of a copyright is entitled to bring legal action against any person or entity that infringes upon the right of exclusive use of the work. In addition to the deliberate copying or distribution of copyrighted material for profit, other violations include the fraudulent use of the copyright notice or the willful removal of the copyright notice to falsely attribute the work.


Sections 502 through 505 of USC Title 17 describe potential remedies for infringement, such as injunctions, impounding materials that initiate the infringement, repayment of damages to the copyright holder, and the reimbursement of court costs and legal fees. Section 506 addresses specific monetary penalties for criminal infringement, each of which, at the time of publication, cannot exceed $2,500. For civil proceedings, the copyright owner must bring legal action against the offending party or parties within three years from the time the copyright violation occurred, and within five years for criminal proceedings.