Consequences for Violations of the Copyright Laws

By Larissa Bodniowycz, J.D.

Consequences for Violations of the Copyright Laws

By Larissa Bodniowycz, J.D.

Copyright law considers many creations, such as photographs, writings, and art, to be creative works. For this reason, it is strictly prohibited to copy the creative work of another without the creator's permission. U.S. law inflicts significant civil and sometimes criminal consequences for violations. Lack of intent to violate copyright laws is not a valid defense, but penalties are generally harsher for infringement committed knowingly.

Messy desk with blue binder on it that says "copyright law"

Civil Penalties

You can file civil lawsuits against those who infringe on registered copyrights. If a court finds the defendant liable for infringement, they must pay damages to the owner. The amount of damages depends on the specifics of the case and what the owner can prove.

If the owner can prove significant financial harm, the infringer must pay that amount, generally measured by the amount of financial gain the infringer accrued from using the infringing work. Courts refer to this sum as actual damages. Statutory damages, on the other hand, do not require the copyright owner to prove financial loss. Statutory damages can range from hundreds of dollars to tens of thousands of dollars, or in the case of willful infringement, up to $150,000 per work.

Those found liable for infringement may also have to pay the attorneys' fees and court costs of the winning party; such fees and costs are often tens of thousands of dollars. The judge has discretion as to whether they award attorneys' fees and costs to the owner.

With an injunction, a judge can formally order an infringer to stop the infringing acts, on top of paying monetary damages. If the infringer violates the injunction, the court might assess additional financial penalties and hold the violator in contempt of court.

Criminal Penalties

In certain circumstances, a court brings criminal charges against an infringer as well. Generally, a case involves criminal charges when there is willful infringement of copyrighted works having a minimum retail value set by law within a particular period. Those who try to circumvent digital tools that protect works might also find themselves with criminal charges.

Criminal penalties for copyright violations can be significant. Even first-time criminal offenders can end up with hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties and imprisonment for up to 180 days. Subsequent offenses can result in increased financial penalties and prison sentences.

Reputational Consequences

In addition to the legal consequences, you risk reputational harm if you or your business infringes on someone else's copyright. If others find out about the infringement, you could gain a reputation as a person or business that acts or competes unfairly, which could significantly damage your personal and professional well-being.

To avoid being subject to civil or criminal consequences, carefully avoid infringing on someone else's copyright. You should also consider formal registration for your works to have the full scope of remedies available if someone does in fact infringe on your protected work. If you need assistance, you could always contact a qualified professional who can assist you with potential legal issues pertaining to such violations.

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.