Who hasn't dreamed of whipping off copies of U.S. currency and making one set of bills into hundreds of sets of bills? But don't get carried away and try to move this fantasy into reality. Strict laws restrict the reproduction of United States paper currency, and you'd better get them down pat before you begin.
Counterfeiting Is a Serious Crime
Counterfeiting U.S. currency is a federal crime. This shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. Manufacturing counterfeit United States currency violates Title 18, Section 471 of the U.S. Code, and you can get 15 years or more in prison if convicted. It is also a violation of that statute to alter currency to increase its value. That means you can get serious jail time if you try to change that one dollar bill into a 100-dollar bill.
Even holding counterfeit United States currency can send you to jail if you are doing so with "fraudulent intent," meaning an intention to pass the fake money off as real money. These strict rules also apply to coins. Counterfeiting any coin more valuable than a nickle carries the same penalties.
The Counterfeit Deterrence Act of 1992 upped the penalties of counterfeiting. It also allowed the Treasury Department to make new designs to foil counterfeiters, like inserting small watermarks of the portraits or using color shifting ink.
So creating fake money is a crime and altering currency and coin is also a crime. What about copying?
Copying Is Also Forbidden
Making photocopies of paper currency of the United States violates another section of the code, Title 18, Section 474 of the U.S. Code. Also forbidden under the statute: printed reproductions of checks, bonds, postage stamps, revenue stamps and securities of the United States and foreign governments. Those who violate this law can be fined up to $5,000 and/or be sentenced to 15 years imprisonment.
Copying Without Criminal Intent
Can you ever make a copy of a U.S. bill? Or use a photo of one in a booklet or pamphlet, or for a theater performance? It is possible to do this legally if you follow very strict guidelines.
- Any pictures or copies of currency cannot be the same size as an actual dollar. Make it less than three-quarters or over 1 1/2 times the actual size.
- Don't print the currency on two sides. Illustrations must only be printed on one side.
- When you are done, delete or destroy the scans, plates or digital images used to make the illustration.
- Apply these same rules for photographs and printed copies of dollars.
- Copies of bills can be used in movies and videos. It used to be that they had to be in black and white, but as of the 1990s, color is permitted as well.
- In movies, actual money can be used.
These rules are designed to allow pictures or copies of currency for advertisements, movies or other purposes without coming close to a counterfeiting operation.
It isn't completely illegal to make copies of American currency, but U.S. bills can be copied only under certain circumstances and only in certain ways.
Teo Spengler earned a JD from U.C. Berkeley Law School. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an MA and an MFA in English/writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.