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Penalties for breaking copyright law

Updated July 29, 2018

A copyright owner has the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, manipulate and perform her work, and to authorise others to do so. Anyone who is not the copyright owner and takes advantage of any of these rights for a copyrighted work, without the copyright owner’s permission, is guilty of infringement. The copyright law of the United States addresses infringement, including the penalties for doing so.

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If a copyright holder files suit for infringement, the court may grant a temporary injunction at any time while the suit is pending. This injunction may become final at the conclusion of the suit. The injunction is valid throughout the United States and enjoins the alleged copyright violator from continuing infringing.

Impounding and Disposition

At any time while an infringement suit is pending, the court may also order all existing infringed copies of a copyrighted work to be impounded. As part of a final judgment, if infringement is found, the court may order these copies destroyed.

Damages and Profits

A copyright owner is entitled to any actual damages he suffers as a result of the infringement. Any illicit profits that were acquired as a result of the infringement are included in this calculation. Instead of attempting to calculate actual damages, the copyright holder may elect an award of statutory damages, which is subject to the court’s discretion.

Costs and Attorney Fees

In a civil action for infringement, a court can award the full cost of the action to the prevailing party, including attorney fees. The statute does not restrict this award to copyright owners, and courts can also award related costs to a defendant if the plaintiff fails to prove her infringement case.

Criminal Penalties

Anyone who wilfully produces copies of someone else's copyrighted work with a total retail value of over £650 within a 180-day period, for purposes of private financial gain, may be subject to criminal penalties. Penalties can include up to five years in prison and restitution for the offence. A violator is also criminally liable if he distributes a work prepared for commercial distribution before the copyright holder publicly releases the work. In this case, the violator faces restitution and imprisonment of up to three years for a first offence.

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About the Author

Jennifer Mueller began writing and editing professionally in 1995, when she became sports editor of her university's newspaper while also writing a bi-monthly general interest column for an independent tourist publication. Mueller holds a Bachelor of Arts in political science from the University of North Carolina at Asheville and a Juris Doctor from Indiana University Maurer School of Law.

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