Copyright infringement occurs when an individual uses someone else’s copyrighted work without permission. Generally, this is pursued as a federal crime and is charged as either a misdemeanor or felony. Depending on the situation, a conviction can result in years in prison and hefty fines.
What Is a Copyright?
Copyrights offer legal protections for authors of creative works. The protections give ownership to the creator and allow them to do certain things with their creations that others cannot, such as reproduce, distribute, modify, or display them.
Various types of works are protected by copyrights, including:
- TV shows
Typically, the person who created the work is the one who owns the copyright. However, if an employee created the work during their employment, the copyright owner would be the employer.
What Does It Mean to Infringe on a Copyright?
A person commits copyright infringement when they use, copy, display, or reproduce a protected work without the owner’s permission. For example, suppose someone made a home video and added a popular song as background music. If they shared their video online and didn’t have permission from the song’s owner to use it, they are infringing upon copyright. Or, perhaps someone created a flyer for a sale at their store, and they used a photograph they found online as part of the ad. They, too, are committing copyright infringement.
A common misconception is that once a person buys a song, photo, or other creative work, they are free to use it however they choose. Unfortunately, purchasing the work does not give the buyer permission to reproduce or distribute it; it is still protected under copyright laws.
What Are the Penalties for Copyright Infringement?
As mentioned earlier, under federal law, copyright infringement is either a misdemeanor or a felony. The specific conviction penalties that may be imposed depend on the number of items used and the retail value of the copyrighted works.
The punishments for copyright infringement include5 years of imprisonment and/or a fine for reproducing or distributing 10 copies of 1 or more works valued at over $2,500, and the act was committed for commercial advantage or financial gain. The penalty increases to a 10-year prison term for a second or subsequent offense.
The term of imprisonment would be 1 year if the infringement involved amounts less than those stated above.
If the alleged offender reproduced or distributed copyrighted works but their actions weren’t done for commercial or personal financial gain, they could be imprisoned for 3 years for the first offense and 6 years for second and subsequent offenses.
If the alleged crime involved a work that was going to be used for commercial distribution and the individual posted it online, they face 3 to 10 years in prison. Again, the length of imprisonment depends on whether the act was committed for financial gain and if the accused was previously convicted of a similar offense.
To land a conviction in a copyright infringement case, the prosecution must prove that:
- A valid copyright existed;
- The accused violated the copyright law;
- The accused acted willfully; and
- The accused sought commercial advantage or private financial gain
In a copyright infringement case, certain defenses may be raised, such as "fair use." This means that the work was copied or distributed for educational purposes, such as criticism or research.