Copyright laws exist to protect individuals' and organizations' proprietary creations, granting creators of proprietary property the sole right to produce, distribute and profit from their own creation for a set number of years. In order to maintain these protections, copyright laws are paired with criminal and civil penalties for those caught reproducing or stealing copyrighted goods. The consequences of breaking copyright laws extend beyond the courtroom, as well, as publicized copyright-infringement cases can damage a company's reputation for years.
The first line of defense for copyright holders is civil litigation, in which the owner of a copyright sues a transgressor in civil court. According to the U.S. Copyright Office, copyright owners can sue for an injunction – a legal mandate to stop reproducing or otherwise profiting from copyrighted material – or financial restitution. Restitution can add up to significant amounts of money for lost revenue, damaged reputation and court costs on the part of the copyright holder.
In addition to making financial restitution to copyright holders, those caught breaking copyright law can face serious criminal penalties. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, first-time copyright infringement cases can carry a fine of up to $250,000 and up to five years in prison. If you get caught more than once in a copyright-infringement case, you could face additional fines of up to $250,000 and up to 10 years in prison.
The kinds of penalties laid out for violators of copyright law can make compelling headlines, which can place you or your company in a very negative spotlight in the business and legal press. Even if you can avoid prison time and take care of the required fines and restitution, you may find that your reputation is tarnished or ruined among consumers, competitors, suppliers and potential strategic partners. Breaking copyright laws represents a fundamental lack of integrity and trustworthiness, which is important to virtually every internal and external stakeholder of any organization.
All of these potential consequences combined can result in lost money and lost demand for your business, potentially leading to business bankruptcy, personal bankruptcy and the failure of your business. Breaking copyright laws is one of those gambles that can generate seemingly large sums of money in the short term, but can result in devastating financial loss in the long run. The best way to take advantage of a competitor's copyrights is to redesign and improve upon their copyrighted materials in your own unique way with your own legal copyright protection.