What Can Happen to People if They Steal Copyrighted Work?

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Stealing copyrighted work is known as copyright infringement. The penalties for copyright infringement vary, and the extent of the penalties will depend on the status of the copyrighted work as well as the character and nature of the use of the copyrighted work. Additionally, there are defenses to copyright infringement, including the doctrine of fair use.

Unregistered Works

Regardless of whether or not the work in question is registered, stealing or infringing on the rights of the copyright owner is unlawful. The penalties for infringing on an unregistered copyrighted work can be less severe than the potential penalties for infringing a registered work. Holders of unregistered copyrights who suffer from infringement are entitled to actual damages including any profits the infringer makes.

Registered Works

For works that are registered with the United States Copyright Office, penalties for infringement are more severe. In addition to actual damages, the copyright holder may be entitled to statutory damages, which can include costs, attorneys fees and penalty fees. For willful infringement of registered works, infringers can be liable for up to $150,000 per work.

Criminal Offenses

The copyright code also provides specific penalties for criminal offenses. Criminal offenses include: willful infringement, fraudulent copyright notice, fraudulent removal of copyright notice and false representation. Although criminal charges are possible, they are less likely than civil penalties. Willful and deliberate copyright violations can potentially carry a penalty of up to 10 years in prison.

Fair Use

Under certain circumstances the doctrine of fair use can provide a defense to charges of copyright infringement. A defense of fair use depends on the nature and character of the copyright use, whether or not the use was for profit, how much material was used and the manner in which the material use occurred. Common fair use examples include parody and educational fair use.

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