What Happens If Someone Breaks a Copyright Law?

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Someone breaks copyright law by infringing upon the owner’s exclusive right to use the content unless it falls under Fair Use. Penalties range from receiving a sternly worded letter to spending time in jail. It all depends on the details of the infringement – and the actions of the copyright holder.

Examples of Copyright Infringement

Using someone else’s work, particularly for financial gain, can land someone in legal trouble. That’s true even when the individual doesn’t know what he’s doing. Examples of infringement can help internet users determine what they can and can’t do with protected works.

Examples of infringement include:

  • Using an artist’s graphic or photo for a profile picture on social media.
  • Downloading and uploading albums, movies or games from sharing sites.
  • Copying and pasting the text of a written recipe.

The following aren’t examples of copyright infringement:

  • Using the same username as someone else.
  • Citing a sentence of a research paper in a school report, when attributed properly.
  • Copying the ingredients, measurements and cooking method of an existing recipe.

Many things aren’t protected by copyright, but people can legally use those that are, in certain situations, under Fair Use law.

Read More: How to Avoid Copyright Infringement When Writing a Book

What Is Fair Use?

Fair Use allows people to use a small portion of a copyrighted work for certain “transformative” purposes – meaning, the work essentially changes into something else. A line from a book becomes part of a book report. The plot from a play becomes a parody. A segment of video game footage becomes a tutorial for the game.

Under Fair Use, a limited amount of copyrighted material can be used in news reporting, for the purpose of criticism and commentary, in research, and in education. The user must legally gain access to the material first, but when used in this way, the copyright holder doesn’t need to give permission and isn’t due payment. The same isn’t true when someone uses a protected work in a different way.

For instance, if a YouTube presenter posted a song she liked online without permission, the creator of the song could sue and ask for financial damages as well as removal of the content. Even a photo borrowed and used for a profile picture can lead to a lawsuit. However, copyright protection does not last forever.

How Long Do Copyrights Last?

Copyrights protect works made after 1978 automatically upon creation. They don’t require special markings or registration. People should assume that if they did not make something themselves, the rights belong to someone else. Very rarely do creators release their copyright into Public Domain intended for public use. When this happens, the work is usually marked, most-often through a public domain dedication or noted through a Creative Commons license. The CC-license has several variations, each with its own sharing requirements for attribution, modification, commercialization and use.

The law permits limited use of other works without permission or payment once the copyright expires. Even then, there are rules for claiming and using the work. For instance, someone can’t republish a book from the 1800s in her own name as if it were her book. As part of the Public Domain, the work belongs to the public.

Protection of copyrighted works lasts:

  • 70 years after the death of a single creator.
  • 70 years after the death of the longest-surviving creator in a group project.
  • 95 years after the first publication or 120 years after the creation of an anonymous, pseudonymous and work for hire projects or after the presumption of an author’s death.

The work enters the Public Domain on the last day of the expiration year.

Works created before 1964 follow a different set of guidelines, as creators needed to renew their protection after 28 years.

Penalties for Breaking Copyright Law

When someone breaks copyright law, he is essentially stealing someone else’s work. It might not seem that simple when it’s so easy – and prevalent – to “borrow” words, photos, music and even full-length movies online, but it is a form of theft. Worse, it’s a type of theft that can severely limit the creator’s ability to earn a profit on his work. There are consequences for obvious reasons.

In August 2019, beloved romance author Nora Roberts sued a Brazilian writer who allegedly copied passages from more than 93 books written by 43 authors. Roberts demonstrated plagiarism from nine of her own works and sued Cristiane Serruya for 3,000 times the amount of the highest-price novel she’d sold.

Serruya’s defense? Her ghostwriter did it. She also claimed to use software to weed out plagiarism. Given the scale of her offense, it’s doubtful that ignorance will help her in court.

According to U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, punishments for infringing copyright include:

  • Removal of copyrighted material.
  • Confiscation of infringing items.
  • Legal injunctions to prevent further copyright infringement.
  • Payment of money earned or value lost due to infringement, from $200 to $150,000 per work.
  • Court costs and attorneys' fees.
  • Jail time.

Some of these remedies are available only to creators with a legally registered copyright.

When Is Copyright Infringement Criminal?

Washington resident Eric Lundgren says he only wanted to help people repair their PCs and keep them out of landfills. Microsoft said he’d mass-produced their free-to-the-public restoration CDs included with the purchase of a new system. Lundgren wound up serving a year in jail after selling a bulk order of 28,000 counterfeit CDs for just over $3,000.

His mistake? Publishing the CDs himself. If Lundgren had purchased them from Microsoft instead of making copies, he wouldn’t have been in any legal trouble. If it hadn’t been on such a grand scale, he probably wouldn’t have gone to jail.

The line between civil and criminal copyright infringement lies in the intention and the amount. The offender must know someone else holds the copyright, and money must exchange hands. The law considers it a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison, if someone reproduces or distributes more than 10 copies of one or more works with a value of $2,500 or more within 180 days.

Copyright Law and Internet Use – The Digital Millennium Copyright Act

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998 came into effect just in time to put two crucial protections in place:

  • Anti-circumvention laws, and
  • Safe harbor to select internet services.

Anti-circumvention laws were designed to prevent people from accessing copyright files, such as downloading movies from DVDs or decrypting protected files. Punishments for circumvention are severe, ranging up to 10 years in prison and fines up to $1 million.

Safe-harbor rules have the biggest impact on internet users today. The law protects internet service providers, web hosting companies, domain name providers, message board owners, social media sites and more, from penalties related to their user’s copyright violations as long as they act swiftly to remedy the situation.

Some of the actions taken include:

  • Content removal.
  • Account restrictions.
  • Account termination.
  • Loss of website hosting/domain.
  • Site removal from search results. 

These penalties are in addition to the copyright owner’s ability to follow up with a lawsuit and the potential for criminal charges.

Other Types of Punishments for Breaking Copyright Law

An unexpected result of breaking copyright law occurs outside of the courtroom, but can have a serious impact on the income of the copyright owner. In today’s "cancel culture," highlighted by the public's ability to drop someone for anything, everything or nothing at all, the biggest danger in copying content is becoming a persona non grata online. Copying the work of someone with a large following can bankrupt a business much faster than a lawsuit. Fortunately, the rules involved in copyright protection aren’t that difficult to figure out.