Consequences for Violations of the Copyright Laws

By David Ingram

Copyright laws are in place to protect the creators of proprietary written works, images, music and a range of other assets. Copyright laws in the United States provide enforcement provisions to ensure compliance with copyright regulations, and the consequences of violating these laws can be costly. Understanding the potential consequences of breaking copyright laws should deter would-be counterfeiters and intellectual-property thieves from taking advantage of other entrepreneurs' creations.

Criminal Fines

Violators of copyright law can find themselves in trouble with the federal government and liable for substantial monetary penalties. Courts determine the amount of fines based on the value of items counterfeited in violation of the law. Cases dealing with over $2,000 in counterfeited or unlawfully reproduced materials are viewed as more serious than violations under $2,000. In either case, defendants can be charged up to $250,000 for each offense committed.

Prison Time

The U.S. government takes copyright infringement seriously enough to impose prison time on first-time and repeat offenders. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, first-time offenders can serve up to five years in prison, while repeat violators can face an additional 10 years. It is possible, through plea bargains, to commute a large portion of these sentences pending completion of a period of probation or house-arrest, but any breach of the law during probationary periods can send a defendant directly to prison to serve the full commuted term.

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Victims of copyright infringement can sue violators in civil court with two likely outcomes, the first of which is an injunction. An injunction serves as an official court order to stop performing any act, including reproducing or distributing copyrighted materials. Failure to comply with an injunction can result in the arrest of copyright violators, as well as additional charges for contempt of court. The second possible outcome is an order for financial restitution.

Financial Restitution

The amount of restitution that can be awarded for copyright infringement depends on the value of the loss or inconvenience incurred by the infringement victim. If a copyright violator's actions cause a copyright holder to lose a significant amount of income or suffer a damaged reputation, the amount of restitution can add up quickly. Violators can also be required to reimburse plaintiffs for their attorney's fees and the cost of lost productivity throughout the legal process. Virtually everyone who loses a court case is responsible for paying court fees, as well, which are not included in criminal fines or judgements for restitution. Court fees can add up over time in drawn-out court battles, increasing copyright violators' financial burden after losing a case.

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Copyright Rules & Time Limits

U.S. federal laws provide the basis for copyright rules and time limits. The general purpose of copyright law is to encourage and protect artistic and literary creativity by giving artists and authors legal protection over their creations. However, because the general public also has an interest in acquiring the right to use those creations, copyrights do not exist in perpetuity.

What Happens If You Break Copyright Laws?

Copyright protects creators of original works, such as songs, books, articles, software, art and photos. Anyone who republishes, reproduces or redistributes a copyrighted work without the owners' permission is guilty of copyright infringement, although there are a few important exceptions to this rule. Copyright infringement is a federal offense, and the laws governing copyright infringement, including penalties, are contained in Title 17 of the United States Legal Code.

Music Performance Copyright Laws

An artist with a registered copyright has the right to take legal action against someone who is copying or distributing her work without permission. A person who records or distributes copies of a performance of copyrighted music—a digital copy of a live concert, for example—without the artist's consent is subject to criminal and civil remedies under the United States Copyright Act. State laws may add extra penalties and remedies to a case of music performance copyright infringement, as per Chapter 11 of the Act.

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