October 13, 2017

What are the penalties for copyright infringement?

Photo by Bill Oxford

Copyright is automatically assigned to the image creator upon the work’s creation, therefore the image owner is not explicitly required to register it for the purpose. This means that every image out there is in fact protected by copyright, making copyright infringement more common than you would probably think — and participating in it unknowingly is not an exculpatory circumstance (or excuse).

Photographers can protect their work in many ways and they always have the option to pursue legal action as well. Penalties for copyright infringement vary so we prepared an overview of copyright infringement penalties by country. Note that this article is not a substitute for legal advice.

Copyright Infringement Penalties in the US

Copyright infringement can have both civil and criminal consequences in the US.

Civil penalties of copyright infringement in the US

There are three main categories of damages that the court may impose as civil penalties for copyright infringement:

1. Actual damages

Actual damages are paid if the rights owner/holder can prove that the infringement caused them financial or reputational harm which the infringer must pay back, based on the court’s decision.

2. Statutory damages

Statutory damages apply when the image owner’s work has been formally registered at a designated copyright office. In this case, image owners can claim compensation for the unauthorized use of their work, without the need to prove financial or reputational loss or damages caused by the copyright infringement.

Statutory damages for a work registered with the US Copyright Office range from $750 – $30,000 plus attorney’s fees, but in especially egregious cases of willful infringement, courts may award up to $150,000. Photographers also have the option of recovering lost profits.

Removal or falsification of copyright management information (CMI) may give rise to additional statutory damages of $2,500 to $25,000 under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

Examples of removing copyright management information (CMI) include:

  • removing watermarks or logos
  • removing metadata including creator name and copyright information
  • republishing a work without the author’s name
  • removing information about license terms
  • placing your own watermark on another photographer’s work

3. Attorney’s fees and other costs

Copyright infringement disputes extend far beyond the damages awarded. Lost time, attorneys’ fees, court expenses, travel costs, expert fees, and other expenses are often more expensive than the photo itself and the court can order the infringer to pay them.

Criminal penalties of copyright infringement in the US

Most copyright cases are only subject to civil penalties but willful infringement can result in criminal penalties. According to the Copyright Law of the United States, a willful copyright infringer can be imprisoned for a maximum of 5 years or even 10 years if the crime does not occur for the first time. Although these are rare cases, the answer to the common question, can I go to jail for copyright infringement, is indeed: yes, you can.

copyright claim
Photo by Markus Winkler

Copyright Infringement Penalties in Canada

Copyright infringers can face both civil and criminal penalties in Canada.

  • Civil penalties of copyright infringement in Canada: For commercial copyright infringement in Canada, statutory damages range from $500 to $20,000 per unauthorized use. Artists may also accept profits earned as a result of the infringement instead.
  • Criminal penalties of copyright infringement in Canada: In cases of willful infringement in Canada, one can be fined up to $1,000,000 or imprisonment for a term of not more than 5 years or to both.

Copyright Infringement Penalties in the UK

In the UK, the Copyright, Designs and Patent Act 1988 originally indicated the penalties for copyright infringement which was partly modified in the Digital Economy Act 2010, regarding unauthorized uses of copyrighted work online. Based on the guidance of the Intellectual Property Office of the UK government, potential penalties generally are as follows:

  • Civil penalties of copyright infringement in the UK: If found guilty of copyright infringement, fines can be unlimited.
  • Criminal penalties of copyright infringement in the UK: The maximum prison sentence for copyright infringement is 10 years.

In the UK, copyright holders are also entitled to receive their lost license fees or the infringer’s profits from the use of the work. The courts may also award additional damages for flagrant acts of copyright infringement. In general, the prevailing party must also pay the other party’s costs.

Avoid copyright infringement with Pixsy

Using an image without permission can have serious consequences, including both civil and criminal penalties in many parts of the world. It’s always recommended to check the image owner of the copyrighted work first, confirming if you’re allowed to use it and what are the terms and conditions in doing so. Pixsy’s monitoring service (free and unlimited up to 500 images) can help you scan the web for images and verify their original source, and the Pixsy Blog is also at your service in case you would like to learn more about responsible and legal image use.

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