If you have ever watched a movie on disc at home, then before or after the feature presentation you will see a notice warning about the perils of copyright infringement if you make an illegal copy of the movie. But what is a copyright, exactly, and what are the penalties if you are convicted of a copyright violation?

A copyright is more than just a © symbol. It has real significance, and is meant to protect an author’s or other creator’s rights in his or her original work. Copyrights can exist on many different kinds of tangible media, including literary, musical and dramatic works, motion pictures and sound recordings, architectural, pictorial, graphical and sculptural works, and more. The copyright does not protect ideas, it protects their physical expressions from unauthorized duplication and includes protection of derivative as well as original works.

So what happens if a person infringes on a copyright? Unauthorized copying of a copyrighted work is something that the owner of the copyright can take legal action against. It is also a federal crime, so even if the copyright owner does not file a lawsuit the government can file criminal charges on its own. Conviction based on copyright infringement can lead to several different remedies, including:

  • money damages, including liability to pay court costs and attorney fees
  • injunctive relief
  • impoundment and destruction of the illegal copies
  • fines

Just because a work is copyrighted, though, does not mean that it cannot be copied legally. Some exceptions to copyright protection exist, such as having to do with academic usage. The full range of penalties for violation of copyright and available defenses against accusations of such violation are beyond the scope of this introductory post, and you should not take what is written here as legal advice. If you have been accused or charged with copyright infringement, the complexity of copyright law means that you should retain a defense law firm that has prior experience in this area of law, to ensure that your legal rights are protected as strongly as possible.