What happens if someone breaks a copyright law in the US?

Updated November 21, 2016

Breaking copyright law deliberately is considered a misdemeanour by most states in the United States. In the past several years, companies that own copyrighted material have been more aggressive than in the past about pursuing individuals who have broken copyright laws. There are several laws pending that may change copyright law. However, at this time, punishment for breaking copyright can range from the mild to quite severe.

Community Service and Education

Young offenders of copyright laws are often sentenced to community service and education about copyright law. In 2005, an Arizona teenager was sentenced to "a fine of over £3,250, 200 hours of community service, a 3-month jail term (deferred), and requirements to stay away from file-sharing programs and to take a copyright law class at his school," according to Christopher R. Anderson of

Monetary Damages

If you are found guilty of deliberately breaking--known as "infringing"--copyright law, the owner of the copyrighted material can sue you for monetary damages. Damages in this case means the amount of money the owner lost due to a lack of sales of their materials because you were offering it without copyright. For example, if the owner claims and can prove a loss of £9,750, he can sue you for that sum.

Statutory Damages

You may also have to pay statutory damages based on the value of each movie, piece of music or other material for which you broke the copyright. "Wilful infringement"--meaning that you deliberately stole copyrighted material--can cost you £585 to £195,000 per work stolen. "Innocent infringement," in which you are deemed to have done the copyright breaking without intent, can still cost you £195 to £97,500 in statutory damages.


Judges can also impose fines on individuals convicted of copyright infringement. According to the Family Entertainment and Copyright Act of 2005, individuals convicted of peer-to-peer sharing of movies, music or other materials worth up to £650 in a 6-month period can be given fines of £1,300 per infringement. Convicted individuals can also be banned from file-sharing sites or the entire internet by injunctions, or orders, from a judge. Repeat offenders, or individuals or companies who are stealing copyrighted materials and selling them for profit, can be fined up to £650,000.


Peer-to-peer convicts can be sent to jail for up to three years; distributors can go to jail for up to five years for a first offence and up to 10 years for subsequent offences.

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