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What are the Consequences of Breaking Copyright Laws?

By Crystal K. Wilford
Updated May 16, 2024
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While there are many consequences of breaking copyright laws, the most common include monetary fines, loss of property, loss of freedom, or loss of employment. Typically, copyright law violations involve someone attempting to profit from, distribute, or claim material to which they have no rights. In some countries, copyright infringement — the use of copyrighted material without permission or the right of ownership — could carry the penalty of criminal and civil punishment if the copyright owner should choose to file a claim and take the guilty party to court.

In almost all cases of copyright law violations, no legal action takes place unless the copyright owner actively files a legal claim against the infringing party. Civil penalties faced by a person found guilty of breaking these laws might include monetary fines based on the scale of the violation as well as monetary compensation for time and resources spent tracking and prosecuting the violation. The court might award additional money for consideration of wages lost by the copyright owner.

Penalties for breaking copyright laws can often scale in magnitude. A key consideration is whether the violator attempted to or did receive money for the materials. The copyright owner might also choose to pursue all or only some of the violations in court.

Criminal penalties might include jail time, an order to perform community service, probation, loss of property, and the risk of lost work or educational privileges. Equipment used by the guilty party to perform the infringing acts might be subject to confiscation or seizure. For example, if a computer or server have been used to distribute copyrighted music, videos, or written materials without permission, whether through person-to-person (P2P) networking or hard-copy "bootleg" distribution, they could both be subject to potential seizure or confiscation as accessories to the crime.

Sometimes, a legal letter is sent to a person who is suspected of breaking copyright laws. This letter, also called a cease-and-desist notice, typically demands that the infringing or violating activity be stopped immediately. If the infringement takes place online, additional notices might be sent to the various networks or hosting providers that the violator uses to distribute copyrighted materials.

Should the person breaking the law be a student or member of a university, he or she might face expulsion. In addition, universities often have other pre-determined penalties for copyright infringement. Some schools require signed statements to uphold university policies, and violators might lose of access to university resources, face the university's judicial system, or be suspended.

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Discussion Comments

By anon1006063 — On Jan 24, 2022

Right. When you break copyright, you hurt the author, the creator or the artist.

By SZapper — On May 12, 2012

I remember when I was in college, the consequences for plagiarism (which seems like copyright infringement to me) were pretty steep. I know for most classes, you would definitely fail the course if you were caught plagiarizing. And you might be expelled from the university also.

I actually think this is reasonable in an academic setting. Not only are you hurting the people who wrote the original work, you're also getting an unfair advantage over the other students at the school.

By ceilingcat — On May 12, 2012

@indemnifyme - You bring up an interesting point about the punishment fitting the crime. Also, ebooks bring up a whole other argument about copyright, because in some areas outside of the US, it's hard to get certain ebooks. Publishers don't have the rights to distribute them in that country, or other geographical restrictions exist.

I think in some countries people pirate ebooks simply because it's difficult or impossible to get them legally. It kind of reminds me of how during the Napster-era, a lot of people downloaded music illegally. But when things like iTunes came out, that made it easy and cheap to get music legally, people stopped. I think the same would be true for ebooks.

That being said, I don't know what the consequences are for breaking Internet copyright laws and downloading ebooks illegally. I'll be very interested if I ever hear of a case.

By indemnifyme — On May 11, 2012

I definitely agree that it is bad to break copyright laws. I don't download music or ebooks illegally, although I suppose I could. But I have a degree in art, and I know what it means to create something, so I just can't bring myself to violate someone else's copyright rights.

That being said, I have read about some cases involving copyright law, and sometimes I think the consequences are completely ridiculous. I've read about people being sued or fined a million dollars for downloading a few songs, and not making a profit off of them. In that case, I don't think the punishment truly fits the crime.

By jennythelib — On May 10, 2012

@nextcorrea- Of course, one kind of copyright violation is plagiarism, which is more of an academic kind of "profit." An interesting tidbit is that "plagiarism" comes from root words meaning "kidnapping." So there's an analogy between stealing someone's ideas and stealing their children!

On the other hand, some of the current fronts in the copyright wars have little to do with the owners of the rights. For instance, university libraries that want to digitize their collections often run into the problem of "orphan works." These are works that are still in copyright, but whose copyright owners cannot be found. If no one is able to make a profit anyway, should the library be able to digitize it?

And how available should they be able to make it? Only accessible from library computers? On-campus computers? Off-campus, but only with a university library card? To the general public?

By summing — On May 09, 2012

How do the penalties differ for breaking American copyright laws and UK copyright laws? Are the British more strict about their copyrights or does that distinction belong to the Americans?

By jonrss — On May 09, 2012

Have any of you ever suffered any consequences for illegally downloading music? I have been doing it for years and have never heard so much as a peep from the RIAA or other bodies that are supposed to police this area.

I remember when Napster first came out there were high profile cases of little old ladies with a dozen songs on their computer being sued for tens of thousands of dollars. But that seemed to be a fad. I'm pretty sure that millions still download illegally but there is no longer an enforcement component.

By nextcorrea — On May 08, 2012

There are very real legal consequences for breaking copyright laws. But I want to consider for a moment the ethical and psychic consequences of breaking a copyright.

Basically, you have stolen someone else's idea and tried to profit off of it as it if was your own. That may be the worst kind of theft. You stole something that someone not just owned, they created. It came from them and no one else.

We may think that copyright protects business but really it protects artists. When you break copyright you hurt the most creative amongst us. You also take away the means for them to support themselves by their art. That is, to me, a tragedy.

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