Copyright laws are in place to protect the creators of proprietary written works, images, music and a range of other assets. Copyright laws in the United States provide enforcement provisions to ensure compliance with copyright regulations, and the consequences of violating these laws can be costly. Understanding the potential consequences of breaking copyright laws should deter would-be counterfeiters and intellectual-property thieves from taking advantage of other entrepreneurs' creations.
Violators of copyright law can find themselves in trouble with the federal government and liable for substantial monetary penalties. Courts determine the amount of fines based on the value of items counterfeited in violation of the law. Cases dealing with over $2,000 in counterfeited or unlawfully reproduced materials are viewed as more serious than violations under $2,000. In either case, defendants can be charged up to $250,000 for each offense committed.
The U.S. government takes copyright infringement seriously enough to impose prison time on first-time and repeat offenders. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, first-time offenders can serve up to five years in prison, while repeat violators can face an additional 10 years. It is possible, through plea bargains, to commute a large portion of these sentences pending completion of a period of probation or house-arrest, but any breach of the law during probationary periods can send a defendant directly to prison to serve the full commuted term.
Victims of copyright infringement can sue violators in civil court with two likely outcomes, the first of which is an injunction. An injunction serves as an official court order to stop performing any act, including reproducing or distributing copyrighted materials. Failure to comply with an injunction can result in the arrest of copyright violators, as well as additional charges for contempt of court. The second possible outcome is an order for financial restitution.
The amount of restitution that can be awarded for copyright infringement depends on the value of the loss or inconvenience incurred by the infringement victim. If a copyright violator's actions cause a copyright holder to lose a significant amount of income or suffer a damaged reputation, the amount of restitution can add up quickly. Violators can also be required to reimburse plaintiffs for their attorney's fees and the cost of lost productivity throughout the legal process.
Virtually everyone who loses a court case is responsible for paying court fees, as well, which are not included in criminal fines or judgements for restitution. Court fees can add up over time in drawn-out court battles, increasing copyright violators' financial burden after losing a case.
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