What Happens If Someone Breaks a Copyright Law?

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United States copyright laws give the creators of original works exclusive rights to copy, distribute and sell their work. Anyone else who does so without the permission of the copyright owner potentially breaches that copyright. If someone breaks a copyright law, the copyright owner can file a lawsuit in a federal court. Title 17 of the United States Code contains the provisions of the Copyright Act relating to copyright infringement.

Filing a Lawsuit

The copyright owner must register his work with the United States Copyright Office before he can take legal action to enforce his rights. Section 501 of the Copyright Act states that he may then file a lawsuit in a federal court against anyone who breaches his copyright. The court may ask the copyright owner to serve written notice of the action on the alleged infringer before proceeding with the claim.


During the course of the legal action, the court may grant either temporary or final injunctions under Section 503 to prevent the continued breach of copyright. For example, it may require that production or sale of the disputed items should be stopped. When the court issues a final judgment, it may also order the destruction of all the items that have breached the copyright owner’s exclusive rights.


Section 504 of the Copyright Act states that anyone who infringes copyright is liable for either statutory damages or the copyright owner’s actual damages. The actual damages will usually amount to loss of profits and may also include any profits made by the infringer while breaching the copyright. As an alternative, the copyright owner may choose to claim statutory damages. The court decides the amount of statutory damages, but these will usually be between $750 and $30,000, depending on the circumstances of the breach.


The person who has allegedly breached copyright may raise any one of a number of possible defenses against the action. For example, he may claim that the breach was fair use. The fair use doctrine allows copying, use or reproduction of copyright works in certain situations, including for educational, scholarship and research purposes. He could also argue that the action is too late: Section 507 states that any action for breach of copyright must be filed within three years.

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