What Are the Punishments for Breaking Copyright Laws?

Updated April 17, 2017

Copyright is a form of intellectual property law that protects original authorship, both published and unpublished, for literary, musical, artistic and dramatic works. This can include novels, musical scores, songs, movies, poems, or even architecture. Penalties for infringement of a registered copyright include an injunction, impounding and destruction; and damages, both actual and punitive, including attorney fees and other legal costs.

Copyrights Usually Last 70 Years

An artist's work is copyrighted from the moment it is created, but to bring an infringement lawsuit for a U.S. work, it must be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. Generally, works created after January 1, 1978, are protected for 70 years after the author's death. Protection for works created prior to that varies depending on several factors such as the original copyright date, whether it was renewed and whether the author or descendants still are alive.


Title 17 Chapter 5 Section 502 of the U.S. Code (The Copyright Law of the United States of America) allows civil courts to grant temporary and permanent injunctions, effective anywhere in the United States, to stop copyright infringement.

Impounding And Destruction

Federal copyright law also allows courts to impound the offending works, including all copies made or used in violation of the copyright plus any plates, moulds, master tapes, source files or film negatives used to produce copies.

Courts also can impound records documenting the manufacture, sale or receipt of the offending works but must ensure protection of confidential information they contain. These can be destroyed as part of the court's final judgment.

Actual And Punitive Damages

Federal copyright law allows authors to seek both actual damages (including forfeit of profits) and punitive damages for copyright violations plus all attorney fees and court costs. The punitive damages can range from £487 to £19,500 but can be up to £97,500 if the court declares the person acted wilfully. The court also can reduce the damage award to as low as £130 if the person was not aware of the infringement.

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About the Author

Brian Gawley has been a daily and weekly newspaper reporter since 1989, working for the "Whitman County Gazette," "Columbia Basin Herald," "Grand Coulee Star," "Peninsula Daily News" and "Sequim Gazette." Gawley is a Washington State University Honors Program graduate with a bachelor's degree in communications and a national research paper award winner.