What Happens If Someone Breaks a Copyright Law?

If you infringe on someone’s copyrighted work, you could receive a polite letter or email from the author asking you to remove the material from your website or otherwise stop use of the work. You could get a notice demanding you cease and desist using and distributing the copyrighted work, or you might discover that your Internet service provider has already removed infringing content. You could face penalties of more than $100,000 for each infringed work. You could go to jail. It all depends on the extent of the infringement.

Isolated Infringement

If you found a cool photo that you republished on your website or an excellent blog you reposted, you likely violated somebody’s copyright. This could be “innocent infringement” if you didn’t realize the work was copyrighted. Innocent infringement, however, is becoming harder to claim as writers and photographers are becoming more savvy about placing copyright notices on their work. Even so, if the copyright holder discovered the infringement, you will likely receive only a letter or email asking you to remove the work. If you comply, the matter’s closed.

Digital Millennium Copyright Act Notice

When a copyright owner discovers a serious infringement on the Internet, and it’s up to the owner to decide what’s serious, she can send a Digital Millennium Copyright Act notification to the Internet service provider hosting the site demanding that the infringing material be removed. A DMCA takedown notice specifies where on a site the infringing content is placed so the ISP can take down just that material. But if you have multiple occurrences of copyright infringement, the ISP could take down your whole site to protect its own “safe harbor” status, which prevents it from being charged with hosting infringing works.

You can dispute the claim in the DMCA notice on a basis of fair use, but if you posted a complete article, image or song on your site without permission, your argument will likely not hold up.

Infringement Suit

The owner of a work’s copyright can sue you for copyright infringement, seeking damages from lost sales because of your use or distribution of the material. If the work is registered with the U.S. Copyright Office, the copyright owner can also seek legal costs and statutory damages of up to $150,000 for each work a court finds was willfully infringed upon. If you profited from illegal sales of the copyright-protected work, the court can award that income to the copyright owner.

Criminal Case

If your alleged infringement is serious enough -- for example if you maintained a website for unauthorized copying and distribution of multiple copyrighted works for “commercial advantage or private gain” -- you could face criminal charges. The Federal Bureau of Investigation maintains a special section to investigate violations of intellectual property law, including copyright infringement. The FBI could seize an offending website, confiscate copies of copyrighted materials and seek charges of criminal copyright infringement against any offender. If you made any income off the pirated work, you would likely forfeit that as well. Anyone convicted of criminal copyright infringement faces a maximum of 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine or both.


About the Author

Tom Chmielewski is a longtime journalist with experience in newspapers, magazines, books, e-books and the Internet. With his company TEC Publishing, he has published magazines and an award-winning multimedia e-book, "Celebration at the Sarayi." Chmielewski's design skills include expertise in Adobe Creative Suite's InDesign and Photoshop. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Western Michigan University.