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.

Protect against infringement by registering a copyright. Get Started Now


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.

Protect against infringement by registering a copyright. Get Started Now
Consequences for Breaking Copyright Laws



Related articles

Are Commercials Copyrighted?

With the free accessibility of information and creative content over the Internet, it can be hard to know what is legally available to take and enjoy for free. It can be confusing to realize that something that may be free and legal to enjoy in one context may not be in another context. Most people think of commercials as a free bit of advertising that they are subjected to when they watch television or listen to the radio. Just because a commercial is broadcast for free through certain media does not mean that it is legal for anybody to upload the commercial on YouTube or post it for download on a website. Commercials are copyrighted, and only authorized parties may broadcast, copy or distribute them.

What Happens If Someone Breaks a Copyright Law?

United States copyright laws give the creators of original works exclusive rights to copy, distribute and sell their work. Anyone else who does so without the permission of the copyright owner potentially breaches that copyright. If someone breaks a copyright law, the copyright owner can file a lawsuit in a federal court. Title 17 of the United States Code contains the provisions of the Copyright Act relating to copyright infringement.

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.

Related articles

Punishment for Violating Copyright Laws

Copyright law provides the copyright holder with a legal monopoly on his original works of authorship. Such works ...

What Can Legally Happen to Someone if They Commit Copyright Infringement?

Under U.S. law, a copyright automatically attaches to an original work of authorship as soon as it is reduced to ...

What Happens If You Break Copyright Laws?

Copyright protects creators of original works, such as songs, books, articles, software, art and photos. Anyone who ...

What Is the Punishment for Violating a Patent?

Patent laws encourage creativity by allowing inventors to profit from their inventions. In essence, a patent awards ...

Browse by category
Ready to Begin? GET STARTED