What Happens If You Break Copyright Laws?

By Lisa Magloff

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.

Civil Penalties

If the holder of the copyright has registered her work with the United States Copyright Office (USCO), then she can sue you for damages and compensation in civil court. If you are found guilty of copyright infringement, you can be ordered to pay damages. The amount of damages depends on the amount of lost profits from the infringement and the number of times you infringed on the copyright. You may also be ordered to pay legal fees. The court can also impose statutory damages of between $200 and $150,000. Penalties above $30,000 are generally awarded only for “willful” infringement.

Criminal Penalties

If you infringe on a copyright in order to earn a profit or gain financially, if the value of the infringement is more than $1,000, or if you distribute a work over the Internet that is being prepared for commercial distribution, such as a movie or CD, you may also be guilty of a crime. In such a case, if you are found guilty you face penalties including up to one year in jail, payment of financial damages and payment of legal fees. If the infringement is worth more than $2,500, then you face up to five years in jail, financial damages and legal costs.

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The major exception to copyright infringement is fair use. You may not be guilty of infringement if you were using the work in order to offer academic criticism on it, were engaged in news reporting, research or teaching. Keep in mind that fair use is a defense to copyright infringement, not an excuse. It will be up to a court to decide if the fair use defense applies in your case. Another important exception to copyright infringement is teaching. People who use copyrighted material while conducting face-to-face teaching in a nonprofit educational institution are not infringing copyright. These exceptions do not apply if the copyrighted work was obtained illegally. For example, using or distributing pirated software is always a violation of copyright laws.

Other Penalties

The owner of the copyright has additional civil remedies open to him. He could ask a court to grant an injunction prohibiting use of the infringed material, or preventing infringed material from being transmitted. He can also ask a court to order that the infringed works be impounded and destroyed. If the infringed works are being transmitted on a website, the copyright holder can ask the court to shut down the site.

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Punishment for Violating Copyright Laws


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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.

How to Enforce Your Copyright if Someone Infringes on Your Work

A copyright gives you legal protection over a work you created. Copyright protection extends not only to works of authorship such as musical compositions and novels, but also to software algorithms. The U.S. Copyright Act provides a variety of legal remedies that you can use against copyright infringement including injunctions, civil damages and statutory damages. Although you don't have to register your copyright in order to have grounds for an infringement lawsuit, prior registration confers significant legal advantages.

Types of Copyright Law

Originally, copyright law in the United States was protected by common law that originated in England. Later the U.S. Congress passed the Copyright Act -- found in Title 17 of the U.S. Code -- and amended it several times. The Copyright Act modified but did not repeal common law. In addition, the U.S. has signed copyright treaties with other nations. This legal background has given rise to several different types of copyright law.

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