How Are Copyright Laws Enforced?

By Grygor Scott

A copyright for an original work of authorship gives the copyright owner a set of property rights. During the term of the copyright, the copyright owner has the exclusive right to reproduce and distribute copies of the work, prepare derivative works, and perform and display the work. A copyright owner also has the right to authorize others to use her work. Copyright laws prohibiting the unauthorized use of copyrighted works are enforced through civil lawsuits and criminal prosecutions.


Infringement occurs when a person exercises one of the copyright owner’s exclusive rights without permission. Not all unauthorized uses of a copyrighted work constitute infringement, however. Federal copyright laws place limitations on the grant of exclusive rights. For example, the act of reproducing part of a copyrighted work may not be infringement if the reproduction is used for certain purposes, including news reporting, teaching or commentary. This limitation on copyright is known as "fair use."

Civil Lawsuit

To enforce his copyright, a copyright owner may file a lawsuit in federal court, alleging infringement by a defendant. In court, the copyright holder must prove that his copyright is valid and that the defendant’s actions infringed upon his statutory rights. In a civil lawsuit, enforcement of a copyright entails injunctive relief and monetary compensation. This means that a court can order the offending party to stop using the copyrighted material, and also order that party to pay the copyright owner.

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The Copyright Act enables courts to provide injunctive relief that is “reasonable to prevent or restrain infringement.” After a copyright infringement lawsuit is filed, but before the case is tried, a copyright holder may petition the court to issue a preliminary, or temporary, injunction to prevent the defendant from continuing the alleged infringing behavior. An injunction is a court order that requires a person to perform, or to refrain from performing, a specific act. To determine whether an injunction is necessary in a copyright case, a judge examines the broad situation and weighs the likely impacts of an injunction on each party. A court may also issue a permanent injunction if the lawsuit results in a finding of infringement against the defendant. This type of injunction prohibits the defendant from engaging in future infringement of the plaintiff’s copyright.

Monetary Compensation

When a copyright owner wins an infringement case, the court typically orders the defendant to pay monetary compensation for losses that the plaintiff suffered as a result of the infringement. There are three types of monetary compensation in copyright cases: damages, profits and statutory damages. Damages are the actual harm caused by the infringement — sales lost by the plaintiff, for example. A copyright owner may also recover any additional profits that the defendant made as a result of the infringement. Actual monetary losses are difficult to prove in many copyright cases. The Copyright Act allows plaintiffs to request courts to award statutory damages in infringement cases if the copyright owner registered the copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office before the infringement occurred. Statutory damages can range up to $150,000. The Copyright Act also gives courts the discretion to order a copyright infringer to pay court costs and a plaintiff’s reasonable attorney fees.

Criminal Enforcement

Most copyright infringement cases are enforced through civil lawsuits. In the most serious cases, an alleged infringer may also face criminal charges. To be criminally liable for copyright, a person must have committed the infringement willfully. The infringement must also satisfy one of three specific requirements: it was for the purpose of gaining a commercial advantage or a private profit, it involved the reproduction or distribution of at least 10 copies of a copyrighted work that have a total value exceeding $1,000, or it involved the distribution of a work being prepared for commercial distribution over a publicly accessible computer network. Copyright infringement can be a felony or a misdemeanor. A felony charge must involve an infringement of the copyright owner’s reproduction or distribution rights. A felony conviction carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000. A misdemeanor charge results when either the reproduction or distribution involves only a few copies or resulted in little economic gain or if the infringement involves a copyright owner’s other exclusive rights, such as public performance. A misdemeanor carries a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a $100,000 fine.

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