Copyright protects creators of original works, such as songs, books, articles, software, art and photos. Anyone who republishes, reproduces or redistributes a copyrighted work without the owners' permission is guilty of copyright infringement, although there are a few important exceptions to this rule. Copyright infringement is a federal offense, and the laws governing copyright infringement, including penalties, are contained in Title 17 of the United States Legal Code.

Civil Penalties

If the holder of the copyright has registered her work with the United States Copyright Office (USCO), then she can sue you for damages and compensation in civil court. If you are found guilty of copyright infringement, you can be ordered to pay damages. The amount of damages depends on the amount of lost profits from the infringement and the number of times you infringed on the copyright. You may also be ordered to pay legal fees. The court can also impose statutory damages of between $200 and $150,000. Penalties above $30,000 are generally awarded only for “willful” infringement.

Criminal Penalties

If you infringe on a copyright in order to earn a profit or gain financially, if the value of the infringement is more than $1,000, or if you distribute a work over the Internet that is being prepared for commercial distribution, such as a movie or CD, you may also be guilty of a crime. In such a case, if you are found guilty you face penalties including up to one year in jail, payment of financial damages and payment of legal fees. If the infringement is worth more than $2,500, then you face up to five years in jail, financial damages and legal costs.


The major exception to copyright infringement is fair use. You may not be guilty of infringement if you were using the work in order to offer academic criticism on it, were engaged in news reporting, research or teaching. Keep in mind that fair use is a defense to copyright infringement, not an excuse. It will be up to a court to decide if the fair use defense applies in your case. Another important exception to copyright infringement is teaching. People who use copyrighted material while conducting face-to-face teaching in a nonprofit educational institution are not infringing copyright. These exceptions do not apply if the copyrighted work was obtained illegally. For example, using or distributing pirated software is always a violation of copyright laws.

Other Penalties

The owner of the copyright has additional civil remedies open to him. He could ask a court to grant an injunction prohibiting use of the infringed material, or preventing infringed material from being transmitted. He can also ask a court to order that the infringed works be impounded and destroyed. If the infringed works are being transmitted on a website, the copyright holder can ask the court to shut down the site.