What Happens When You Break a Copyright Law in the US?

Copyright laws are more important than you might think. Although many Americans know about copyright laws, they don’t fully understand them. Many carry harsh consequences that most people want to avoid. By the end of this article, you’ll have a better understanding of copyright right laws and the penalties they carry.

What Is Copyright?

Copyright laws protect artists, musicians, software developers, and any other creator from theft and unlawful distribution. They prevent people from stealing a creator’s work and profiting from it without the creator’s permission. Creators have exclusive property rights to their works, giving them full control over their creations without outside interference. However, a person’s work must have three defining factors to qualify for copyright protection:

  • It must exist in a physical form
  • It must be original
  • It must portray creativity in some form or fashion

Works can take inspiration from other creative pieces but must portray noticeable differences to separate themselves from the original. It must differ in quality, aesthetic, or ingenuity while being independently created to receive copyright protection. Failing to differentiate your work from an original piece qualifies as infringing activity and can lead to legal trouble if the original creator presses charges.

How Does Copyright Protection Work?

Copyright laws protect a wide range of creative pieces. Below are some common works protected by the copyright act.

  • Literary writings
  • Songs and lyrics
  • Dramatic productions like plays, musicals, movies, and their associated music
  • Choreographed dances and pantomimes
  • Graphics
  • Software codes
  • Pictures and illustrations
  • Sculptures
  • Audiovisual productions

Simply creating an original work doesn’t automatically give it copyright protection. Creators must go through the copyright registration process to obtain complete control over their work and protect it under the law. Once the owner of a work completes the copyright process, that owner has sole control over it for their lifetime plus an additional 70 years (if they filed the work after 1977). If the work was published anonymously, the piece receives protection for 95 to 120 years.

It’s important to note that copyright only protects the completed creative piece, not the creative process. Many people believe ideas, operation methods, and discoveries qualify as copyrighted work. Although some things might fit one or two of the copyright conditions, they must meet all three requirements to qualify for protection. Other ineligible works include:

  • Principles
  • Systems
  • Procedures
  • Phrases and short titles
  • Lists of contents or ingredients
  • Pieces associated with a common property without an original owner
  • Unwritten speeches
  • Plots
  • Character types

Penalties for Copyright Infringement

Taking someone else’s work and republishing it as your own or distributing a creative piece without the creator’s permission is a form of copyright infringement (although there are some exceptions). The original creator can sue someone if they believe they are infringing on their copyright. If found guilty, the court may require the infringer to pay damages to the original creator.

Damage amounts depend on the lost profits and how many times the defendant infringed on the copyrighted material. The court may also require the infringer to pay for the creator’s legal fees on top of the infringement damages. In some cases, the infringer may need to pay for statutory damages as well. Statutory damages range between $200 to $150,000, depending on the circumstance. If the statutory damages surpass $30,000, this usually indicates willful infringement.

Severe cases of copyright infringement often demand more than just a hefty fine. If one knowingly infringes on a copyrighted work for monetary gains, the infringement’s value exceeds $1000, or if the infringer distributes the work over the internet for commercial distribution, the penalties are much more severe. Some infringers receive up to a year in jail on top of their fines and legal fees. If the infringement surpasses $2,500, the infringer faces a maximum of five years behind bars as well as heavy fines.

Exceptions to Copyright Infringement

Despite copyright infringement’s rigid nature, there are a few exceptions to the law, the primary being fair use. Fair use allows an outside party to use someone else’s work for academic criticisms, journalistic reporting, teaching, or research. It’s important to note that fair use is a legal defense, not an excuse. Not all fair use cases hold up in court. It’s up to the jury to determine whether fair use applies to your specific situation.

Teaching also qualifies as an exception to copyright infringement. Teachers using copyrighted work in a physical, non-profit, scholarly space qualify for an exemption. However, if the teacher obtains the copyrighted material illegally, they face legal penalties. It’s vital to know what qualifies for copyright exceptions if you want to avoid costly legal battles.

What to Do if Someone Attempts to Infringe on Your Work

If you’ve taken all the necessary steps to copyright your work and believe someone is infringing on your creations, you can sue them for copyright infringement. Only the creator of the original work can take legal action against an infringer. The courts won’t enforce the copyright unless you file a lawsuit regardless of the situation.

If you decide to take the infringer to court, you must have substantial evidence to prove their wrongdoing. Copyright infringement cases have a reputation for being a bit complex and difficult. It’s vital to have plenty of evidence proving that the defendant knowingly infringed on your work before filing a lawsuit. Many infringers try to defend their actions with copyright infringement exceptions, making it difficult to prove your case. Some may even toe the legal line and get as close to copyright infringement as possible without breaking any laws.

The best thing to do in these situations is to contact a court lawyer who is experienced in copyright infringement cases as quickly as possible. They can tell you whether your case falls under copyright infringement and how it will hold up in court. Copyright lawyers also help build up evidence and develop a strong case against the infringer. As stated before, copyright infringement cases are very complex and difficult to maneuver without professional help.

How to Resolve a Copyright Infringement Case

The best way to resolve a copyright infringement case is to settle with the defendant out of court. Filing a lawsuit doesn’t guarantee a legal victory and can get exceedingly expensive if you don’t resolve the issue quickly. In many cases, the infringer wasn’t aware they were breaking any laws and will abide by the creator’s wishes if they’re reasonable. Sending them a strongly worded letter threatening legal action usually scares them enough to stop what they’re doing. It’s a fast and cheap way of settling a copyright infringement case without going through the legal system. If a cease-and-desist letter doesn’t work, it’s time to take them to court.

Copyright laws are more important and complex than people realize. They protect creators from copyright infringement while giving outside parties a bit of leeway with fair use policies. If you copyright your work and believe someone is using it unlawfully, it’s vital to have an experienced Toronto copyright lawyer by your side should you decide to take legal action. They will guide you through the copyright infringement process and help you collect evidence to prove your claims. Although settling out of court is usually the preferred option, it never hurts to have a good copyright lawyer on your side.