Copyright Infringement

17 U.S. Code 506 - Criminal Copyright Infringement

The Copyright Act provides a way for copyright holders to protect their rights in their original and creative works of authorship.  Sometimes, musicians, filmmakers, and photographers use the laws to ensure others don't use, copy, or profit from their work.

Federal prosecutors use two main statutes simultaneously to establish criminal charges for copyright infringement. Mostly, enforcing these rights is through a civil lawsuit claiming an alleged violation of 17 U.S. Code 501 copyright infringement. However, in some cases, you could be held criminally liable for infringing a copyright holder's rights defined under 18 U.S. Code 2319.

Criminal prosecution and penalties under 17 U.S. Code 506 for copyright infringement are uncommon. In other words, they are the exception rather than the rule because they only apply in certain circumstances.

17 U.S.C. 506(a)(1), copying or distributing copyrighted work is not the only legal avenue to hold an alleged infringer liable. Civil violations defined under the 17 U.S.C. 201 Copyright Act say it's a crime for someone to intentionally and fraudulently claim copyright registration.

This includes any publicly distributed or imported article with a false copyright notice or removing or altering any valid notification of copyright from a copyrighted work.

Civil copyright infringement allegations can quickly become a criminal issue, but it usually depends on whether the alleged conduct was willful.

Typically, the alleged infringer must first receive legal notice their conduct was a copyright infringement, but they continued the unlawful conduct anyway. The standard is not always set high in all cases, but in a criminal willful copyright infringement case, it must be proven the infringer knew their conduct was illegal from the beginning.

It should be noted there is a fine line between inspiration and copyright violation. Most intellectual property crimes, including alleged copyright infringements, are handled at the civil level. Most people who violate copyright laws are sued by the copyright holder, with no threat of criminal consequences.

When Does a Copyright Infringement Become a Criminal Matter?

In certain circumstances, federal prosecutors can criminally pursue copyright infringements. 17 U.S. Code 506(a) is penalized under 18 U.S. Code 2319 criminal copyright infringement.

So, when exactly does a typical civil copyright violation rise to criminal infringement?  Federal prosecutors will use different statutes to charge someone based on the case details. For example, the government will combine charges of criminal copyright infringement with other common crimes, such as wire fraud, mail fraud, or RICO.

The United States Congress has enacted several federal laws to protect intellectual property to “promote the progress of science and useful arts by securing for authors and inventors the exclusive rights to their writings and discoveries.” Simply put, copyright law in the United States gives copyright holders the exclusive right to the following:

  • Reproduction of their work,
  • Public distribution,
  • Public display of works
  • Public performance of literary, dramatic, musical, sound recordings, choreographic, and audiovisual works.

As noted, federal laws provide remedies for the infringement of these exclusive rights that are primarily civil, but some cases can rise to criminal prosecution. Let's review some of the federal laws below.

17 U.S. Code 506 - Criminal Offenses

17 U.S.C. 506 of the Copyright Act provides someone can be criminally prosecuted for infringing a copyright if the infringement was willful and committed:

“(A) for purposes of commercial advantage or private financial gain;

(B) by the reproduction or distribution, including by electronic means, during any 180 days, of 1 or more copies or phono records of 1 or more copyrighted works, which have a total retail value of more than $1,000; or

(C) by the distribution of a work being prepared for commercial distribution, by making it available on a computer network accessible to members of the public, if such person knew or should have known that the work was intended for commercial distribution.”

Thus, Section 506 defines the type of infringements that would constitute criminal proceedings, such as the following:

  • Intent to gain a commercial or personal financial advantage;
  • If the retail value of copyrighted reproductions exceeds $1,000;
  • If a work that was intended for commercial distribution is intentionally made publicly available while the copyright owner still has a reasonable expectation of distributing the work

What is work being prepared for commercial distribution? Section 506(a)(3) provides the details, such as the following:

  • A computer program;
  • A musical work;
  • A motion picture;
  • Audiovisual work;
  • Sound recordings.

Notably, infringements of these works can be applied to tangible and digital reproductions, such as electronic music, film piracy, and camcording, which is the act of using a recording device in a movie theater.

18 U.S. Code 2319 - Criminal Infringement of a Copyright

Section 2319 outlines the range of penalties if someone commits a copyright offense under 17 U.S.C. 506, as such “(a) Any person who violates section 506(a) (relating to criminal offenses) of title 17 shall be punished as provided in subsections (b), (c), and (d) and such penalties shall be in addition to any other provisions of title 17 or any other law.

These penalties are based on the amount gained from the infringement or the number of reproductions distributed, such as the following:

  • A maximum prison sentence of 5 years, plus fines, assuming there have been at least ten copies produced in 180 days and the retail value of the copies is greater than $2,500;
  • Imprisonment of up to 10 years and fines the same production and value stipulations stated in (a), and this is a second or subsequent violation;
  • If the amount gained is under $2,500, the maximum term in prison is one year, and there are possible fines of up to $25,000.

What Determines Misdemeanor or Felony Charges?

In a felony case of copyright infringement, the Government must prove the alleged perpetrator willfully infringed upon a valid copyright using unlawful reproduction or distribution.

It's a crime to reproduce or distribute ten or more copies of a copyrighted work with a value exceeding $2,500. It's a felony to do the following:

  • Distribute copies for commercial distribution,
  • Makes copies publicly accessible and
  • Act when you know or should have known the work is being prepared for commercial distribution.

A misdemeanor usually involves someone acting for commercial or financial gain or reproducing or distributing works exceeding $1,000 within 180 days. Misdemeanor charges are standard in cases involving the unlawful use of digital audio transmission and infringement of performance rights.

Suppose federal prosecutors decide to pursue a criminal copyright infringement. In that case, whether a misdemeanor or a felony will depend on the money gained from copyright reproduction, such as the following.

  • A felony if the retail value is greater than $2,500,
  • A misdemeanor if the profits are at least $1,000 but under $2,500,

Suppose the violation results in a financial gain of under $1,000. In that case, it's unlikely that federal criminal charges will be filed under 18 U.S.C. 2319.

What are the Related Laws?

17 U.S. Code Chapter 5 Copyright infringement and remedies have several laws related to 17 U.S. Code 506 criminal offenses. Further, other charges could be filed besides the primary copyright laws. The related laws are as follows:

  • 17 U.S.C. 501 — Infringement of copyright,
  • 17 U.S.C. 502 — Remedies for infringement: Injunctions,
  • 17 U.S.C. 503 — Remedies for infringement: Impounding and disposition of infringing articles,
  • 17 U.S.C. 504 — Remedies for infringement: Damages and profits,
  • 17 U.S.C. 505 — Remedies for infringement: Costs and attorney's fees,
  • 17 U.S.C. 507 — Limitations on actions,
  • 17 U.S.C. 508 — Notification of filing and determination of actions,
  • 17 U.S.C. 510 — Remedies for alteration of programming by cable systems,
  • 17 U.S.C. 511 — Liability of States, instrumentalities of States, and State officials for infringement of copyright,
  • 17 U.S.C. 512 — Limitations on liability relating to material online,
  • 17 U.S.C. 513 — Determination of reasonable license fees for individual proprietors,
  • 18 U.S.C. 1341 — Mail fraud,
  • 18 U.S.C. 1343 — Wire fraud,
  • 18 U.S.C. 1030 — Computer hacking,
  • 18 U.S.C. 1832 — Theft of trade secrets,

What Are the Defenses?

The federal Laws protecting intellectual property are often misunderstood. As noted, federal prosecutors must prove someone knowingly violated federal copyright statutes, which is often difficult due to widespread violations.

17 U.S. Code 506 - Criminal Copyright Infringement
Federal prosecutors use two main laws simultaneously for criminal copyright infringement.

Perhaps we can argue that you believed the material was not copyrighted or was allowed to be replicated.

Perhaps we can argue that fair use is a common defense against copyright infringement charges. This exception allows someone to use or recreate a copyrighted work without compensating the copyright holder. Fair use is judged on a case-by-case basis.  

Perhaps we can argue the government violated your constitutional rights in investigating or obtaining evidence. Maybe the seized evidence could be suppressed after filing a successful defense motion. You can reach us for a free case review via phone or contact form. The Hedding Law Firm has offices in Los Angeles, California.

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