A copyright is a legal protection afforded to intellectual property that is considered an original creative work. Examples of works that have copyrights are music, movies, literature, poetry, and works of fine art. A copyright grants the copyright holder (usually the work's original creator, unless rights have been transferred) the exclusive right to reproduce or alter the work; violating a copyright can have severe legal consequences.
The most important consequence of violating copyright laws is the threat of a civil lawsuit. When you violate a copyright, the holder of the copyright can attempt to sue you in order to recoup any damage done or profits you made by violating the copyright. If a copyright violator copies and redistributes a work for monetary gain, the penalty against the violator is likely to be severe. The violator may have to pay the full amount of any damages, up to $150,000 for each work that was violated, and he or she may also be required to recoup the copyright holder for the cost of legal fees. Even if the copyright violation was not made in an effort to make profit--for instance, downloading music illegally for personal use--the infringer can still be sued and be ordered to pay thousands of dollars for each copyrighted work.
Many college students are regular violators of copyright laws, since students are able to use school Internet connections to download music, videos, programs, and other data that may be copyrighted. While individual copyright violators can be difficult to track and punish, when a large number of violations comes from a specific college or university, copyright holders may contact the institution to crack down on copyright infringements. Many institutions of higher learning have strict copyright policies in which students are required to pay fines, write essays, or take disciplinary classes if they are found to have violated copyright laws. Repeated offenses often lead to more severe penalties, such as large fines, Internet restriction, and possible expulsion.
Effects on Copyright Holders
While copyright violations can have negative impacts on those who choose to break the law, they can also have profound effects on the copyright holders themselves. It takes a large amount of resources to actively pursue and prosecute copyright violators, so some copyright holders may choose not to do so. If a copyright holder's work is distributed for free or for much less than it should be legally, it can financially burden the copyright holder. For instance, if a young band has a few popular songs, but fans decide to download the songs illegally on the Internet rather than buy the band's album, it can harm the band. The band might decide that they aren't making enough money to continue and split up.