Punishment for Violating Copyright Laws

By David Carnes

Copyright law provides the copyright holder with a legal monopoly on his original works of authorship. Such works include music, literature, art and even software algorithms. The rationale for punishing those who infringe copyrights is that infringement deprives copyright holders of the fruits of their labor, thereby providing an economic disincentive to produce such works in the first place.

Compensatory Damages

A copyright holder can collect compensatory damages from you if he can prove the amount of economic damages he suffered as a result of your infringement. Since damages can be difficult to prove in copyright infringement cases, most plaintiffs choose to seek statutory damages instead. A plaintiff may sue for compensatory damages if he is ineligible for statutory damages due to failure to register his work with the U.S. Copyright Office, or if he can prove damages in excess of the maximum allowable statutory damages award.

Statutory Damages

You may become liable for statutory damages under the Copyright Act if the work was registered prior to your infringement, or if the work was published prior to your infringement and registered within three months of publication. Statutory damages range from $200 to $150,000 per copyrighted work. The copyright holder does not have to prove that he suffered any actual economic damages to collect statutory damages from you.

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Injunctive Relief

A court may issue an order enjoining you against further copyright violations. Violation of an injunction can result in a charge of contempt of court, which is a criminal offense that can result in incarceration.


A court can order a federal official to seize material that is alleged to infringe a copyright. It often issues seizure orders when a copyright lawsuit is filed, pending the outcome of the trial. If the plaintiff wins the case, the material will be destroyed without compensation to you. If you win the case, however, the court will return the material to you and may order the plaintiff to pay you compensation for the seizure.

Criminal Penalties

You may be criminally prosecuted for copyright violation if you do it willfully -- after receiving a warning from the copyright holder -- for financial gain or for reproducing or distributing copyrighted material with an aggregate value exceeding $1,000. The maximum penalty is five years imprisonment and a $500,000 fine.

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How Are Copyright Laws Enforced?


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What Are the Copyright Laws for Images?

Digital cameras and social networking sites have led to an increase in the volume of images across the media. Anyone who uploads images to a website, or who downloads or copies images created by others, should be aware of the importance of copyright. Copyright laws protect the creators of original works from unauthorized reproduction or copying and penalize those who fail to respect others’ copyrights. Chapter 17 of the United States Code contains the Copyright Act and the relevant laws.

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.

What Is Copyright Infraction?

With easily copied material available on the Internet, the likelihood of copyright infraction has increased. Copyright is a legal protection for the creators of original literary, musical, artistic and intellectual works. Protection generally lasts until 70 years after the creator’s death. A copyright owner has the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, display and prepare derivative works of the original work. Protection automatically exists as soon as the work is in fixed or tangible form, but optional copyright registration gives the owner the right to sue in federal court to protect the copyright.


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