What is Criminal Copyright Infringement? Examples & More

If you’ve underestimated the significance of copyright laws, this guide is essential for you.

Copyright infringement isn’t merely a matter of civil disputes; it can escalate into a criminal offense, resulting in potential arrests and substantial fines.

Copyright infringement is often viewed as a form of stealing and involves the unauthorized use, reproduction, or distribution of creative works. Some copyright violations go beyond civil matters and become criminal offenses.

In this guide, we’ll dive into the details of criminal copyright infringement, using clear examples to help you understand. We’ll discuss the conditions that make copyright infringement a criminal act and the consequences that come with it.

Additionally, insights on how to handle accusations of copyright infringement and how to protect your work from potential violations will be provided.

  • Copyright infringement becomes a criminal offense when it involves intentional and willful violations on a commercial scale, distinguishing it from civil offenses.
  • Criminal charges involve law enforcement agencies, while civil cases are typically initiated by private parties seeking damages or injunctions.
  • In 2016, the U.S. government pursued a criminal case against Artem Vaulin, the alleged owner of KickassTorrents (KAT), one of the largest torrent websites at the time.

What is Criminal Copyright Infringement?

The image explains criminal copyright infringement, including when it becomes criminal, factors affecting charges, consequences, recommended responses to accusations, and ways to protect creative work.

Criminal copyright infringement is the intentional violation of copyright laws on a scale that warrants criminal prosecution. It involves willful and intentional violations of copyright laws, where the violator purposely engages in activities that breach copyright protections. In contrast to civil infringement, which may lead to monetary damages or injunctions, criminal copyright infringement is treated as a criminal offense, carrying more severe legal consequences.

One defining characteristic of criminal copyright infringement is the scale of the violation. Offenses occur commercially, often involving large-scale reproduction, distribution, or sale of copyrighted material for financial gain. The emphasis is on activities that significantly impact the market for the original work, distinguishing criminal cases from smaller, non-commercial instances of copyright infringement.

Piracy and counterfeiting are common elements associated with criminal copyright infringement. This includes the unauthorized reproduction and distribution of copyrighted materials, such as movies, music, software, and other creative works. In the digital age, these activities have expanded into online realms, with illegal distribution occurring through websites, peer-to-peer networks, and various online platforms.

Enforcement of criminal or felony copyright infringement is typically carried out by law enforcement agencies, leading to formal prosecution. Since this type of copyright infringement is a crime, offenders can be arrested and face considerable legal and financial penalties.

The fear of criminal charges and severe penalties is meant to prevent violation of copyright laws. These laws protect not only the financial interests of copyright holders but also protect markets and industries, preserving the integrity of intellectual property rights in the digital age.

What are Criminal Copyright Infringement Charges?

Criminal copyright infringement charges involve the formal accusation and legal pursuit of creators or entities for intentionally and willfully violating copyright laws on a commercial scale.

These charges differ from civil copyright cases because law enforcement agencies get involved, unlike private parties seeking compensation or injunctions.

The requirement to show intent and willful violation is at the core of criminal copyright infringement charges. The accused must have knowingly engaged in activities that breach copyright protections, distinguishing these cases from instances of inadvertent infringement.

Law enforcement agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the United States, play an important role in the enforcement of criminal copyright infringement cases. This involvement emphasizes the severity and societal implications of large-scale copyright violations, elevating them to the realm of criminal prosecution.

Formal legal proceedings, including prosecution and potential trials, are integral components of criminal copyright cases. Getting charged with copyright infringement can result in extreme penalties, including fines and imprisonment.

Criminal Copyright Infringement Examples

High-profile cases showcase the complexities and consequences of large-scale criminal copyright infringement.

Two notable instances offer a glimpse into the complicated legal battles surrounding allegations of facilitating widespread copyright infringement. These cases illustrate how individuals linked to online platforms facilitating the unauthorized distribution of copyrighted content face criminal copyright infringement charges.

United States v. Kim Dotcom et al. (Megaupload Case)

In 2012, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) initiated a case against Kim Dotcom (Kim Schmitz), the founder of the file-sharing website Megaupload, and several co-defendants.

The indictment alleged that Megaupload facilitated and encouraged large-scale copyright infringement by allowing users to upload and share copyrighted content without authorization. The site was accused of hosting and distributing pirated movies, music, software, and other copyrighted materials, causing huge financial losses to copyright holders.

The charges included racketeering, copyright infringement, and money laundering. The case unfolded as a high-profile international legal battle, with Dotcom fighting extradition from New Zealand to the United States.

United States v. Artem Vaulin (KickassTorrents Case)

In 2016, the U.S. government pursued a criminal case against Artem Vaulin, the alleged owner of KickassTorrents (KAT), one of the largest torrent websites at the time.

The indictment accused Vaulin and other operators of running a platform that facilitated the illegal distribution of copyrighted films, music, software, and other content. The charges included conspiracy to commit criminal copyright infringement, conspiracy to commit money laundering, and other offenses.

The case highlighted the government’s efforts to combat large-scale online piracy, and in 2017, Vaulin was arrested in Poland. The legal proceedings led to the seizure of the KickassTorrents domain and the extradition of Vaulin to the United States to face charges.

What Copyright Infringement Laws You Should Be Aware Of?

Before delving into whether copyright infringement is criminal or not, it’s important to have a basic understanding of key copyright laws. Briefly familiarizing oneself with the Copyright Act of 1976, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998, and the No Electronic Theft (NET) Act of 1997 is essential. Here’s a concise description of each

Copyright Act of 1976

The Copyright Act of 1976 is a foundational piece of U.S. copyright law that outlines the rights and protections granted to creators of original works. It establishes the framework for copyright protection, addressing issues such as the duration of copyright, fair use, and the exclusive rights granted to copyright holders, including the right to reproduce, distribute, and display their works.

Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act addresses copyright issues in the context of the digital age. It introduced provisions to protect digital content and prevent circumvention of technological measures that control access to copyrighted works. The DMCA includes the notice-and-takedown system, which provides a mechanism for copyright holders to request the removal of infringing content from online platforms, along with limitations on liability for internet service providers under certain conditions.

No Electronic Theft (NET) Act of 1997

The NET Act amended existing copyright laws to explicitly address electronic forms of copyright infringement. It criminalized certain acts of willful copyright infringement, making it a federal offense to reproduce, distribute, or share copyrighted material, even if there is no direct financial gain, as long as the infringement involves a certain quantity or value of infringing copies. The NET Act increased the legal consequences for copyright violations in the digital realm.

When is Copyright Infringement a Criminal Offense?

Copyright infringement becomes a criminal offense when it involves intentional and willful violations on a commercial scale. In contrast to civil offenses, which are typically addressed through private lawsuits seeking damages or injunctions, criminal copyright infringement entails law enforcement intervention and may result in criminal charges.

The key factors that elevate copyright infringement to a criminal level often include the scale of the violation, the commercial nature of the activities, and the intent to willfully infringe on copyrighted material.

However, to bring a felony copyright infringement action, there must be a valid copyright registration and the prosecutor needs to demonstrate that the defendant willfully and for financial gain breached copyright laws. This involves reproducing or distributing copyrighted works worth over $1,000 within 180 days.

Alternatively, the prosecutor may show infringement by making a work intended for commercial distribution publicly accessible on a computer network. Such serious infringement increases potential penalties, including imprisonment and hefty fines. Criminal copyright laws also aim to deter large-scale infringement and preserve intellectual property rights in the digital era.

What Factors Influence the Decision to Bring Criminal Charges?

The decision to pursue criminal charges in cases of copyright infringement is influenced by various factors that reflect the severity and intentional nature of the violations.

Financial Gain

One of the key factors influencing the decision to bring criminal charges for copyright infringement is the presence of financial gain. When infringing activities are conducted with the primary motive of economic benefit, it raises the gravity of the offense. Criminal charges are more likely when individuals or entities engage in large-scale copyright violations to reap financial rewards, distinguishing such cases from less commercially motivated infringements.

Impact on the Owner

The impact on the copyright owner is also an important consideration in determining whether criminal charges are warranted. If the infringement causes serious financial harm, undermines the market for the original work, or jeopardizes the economic interests of the copyright holder, it increases the likelihood of criminal prosecution.

Scale of Infringement

When infringement activities occur on a large scale, involving widespread reproduction, distribution, or sale of copyrighted material, it amplifies the potential harm to the rights of copyright holders and the broader creative industries. Criminal charges are more likely when the scale of infringement extends beyond isolated or minimal instances.

Willful Infringement

Willful infringement, indicating a deliberate violation of copyright laws, is a key factor that elevates copyright infringement to a criminal offense. Criminal charges require evidence that the infringing party knowingly violated copyright laws. Acts of intentional infringement, conducted with full awareness of the legal implications, contribute to the decision to pursue criminal prosecution.

Potential Penalties for Criminal Copyright Infringement

The potential penalties for individuals or entities convicted of criminal copyright infringement are multifaceted, including financial, legal, and punitive measures. The following list outlines these potential penalties, each rooted in specific legal provisions.


Fines are a common penalty for criminal copyright infringement. Offenders may be ordered to pay a monetary sum, often reflecting the financial harm caused to copyright holders. The specific fines can vary based on the scale of infringement, the financial impact on copyright owners, and other relevant factors. The authority for imposing fines can be found in the sentencing provisions of copyright laws, such as Section 2319 of Title 18 U.S.C.


Imprisonment is a significant penalty for criminal copyright infringement, reflecting the seriousness of the offense. Offenders may face incarceration for a specified period, with the duration determined by factors like the scale of infringement.

Probation and Community Service

As an alternative or additional penalty, the infringer may be placed on probation or assigned community service. Probation entails supervision by authorities, while community service requires the offender to contribute to the community in a specified manner.

Seizure and Forfeiture of Assets

Seizure and forfeiture provisions give authorities the ability to confiscate assets acquired through or used in criminal copyright infringement. This may include proceeds from the infringing activities, as well as items such as equipment and devices used for copyright violations.


Restitution involves requiring the offender to compensate the copyright holder for the actual losses incurred due to the infringement. This may include the value of the copyrighted material, profits gained by the offender, or other quantifiable damages. Restitution is typically ordered as part of the sentencing process, and the authority for it is embedded in sentencing provisions within copyright laws.

Civil Damages

In addition to criminal penalties, copyright violators may face civil lawsuits initiated by copyright holders seeking damages. Civil damages may include compensation for actual losses, statutory damages, and legal fees. While distinct from criminal penalties, civil damages provide an avenue for copyright holders to seek further restitution in a separate legal proceeding.

What Steps Should You Take When Accused of Infringement?

Handling infringement accusations demands a calm and strategic approach, especially for creators facing copyright allegations. This step-by-step guide is designed to assist creators in addressing accusations of infringement with a focus on informed and measured actions.

  • Stay Calm and Gather Information: Remain composed and gather all relevant information regarding the accusation. Collect details about the alleged infringement, including communication, dates, and any evidence that might support your position.
  • Review the Accusation Carefully: Thoroughly review the accusation to understand the specific claims being made against you. Identify the copyrighted work in question and the nature of the alleged infringement. 
  • Consult Legal Advice Immediately: Seek legal advice promptly. Contact an attorney with expertise in intellectual property law to discuss the details of the accusation and explore potential courses of action. 
  • Document Your Own Original Work: Compile evidence showcasing the originality of your work. This may include drafts, timestamps, or any other documentation that establishes your creation independently of the alleged infringement. This is important for building a strong defense.
  • Communicate Professionally: If the accusation comes in the form of a cease-and-desist letter or similar communication, respond professionally. Acknowledge receipt of the accusation and express your intent to address the matter. Avoid confrontational language and maintain a cooperative tone.
  • Address the Allegations Point by Point: In consultation with your attorney, address each point of the accusation methodically. Provide detailed responses, supported by evidence and legal reasoning. Clarify any misunderstandings and present your case clearly and concisely.
  • Consider Negotiation or Mediation: Depending on the circumstances, explore the possibility of negotiation or mediation to resolve the dispute amicably. This may involve reaching an agreement with the copyright holder that addresses concerns while avoiding protracted legal proceedings.
  • Review and Revise Your Practices: Use the experience as an opportunity to review and revise your creative processes. Ensure that your workflows align with copyright laws and take proactive steps to prevent future misunderstandings or accusations.
  • Follow Legal Proceedings, if Necessary: If legal proceedings are initiated, continue working closely with your attorney. Adhere to any legal timelines, respond to legal documents appropriately, and actively participate in the legal process under the guidance of your legal counsel.
  • Continue Dialogue and Cooperation: Throughout the process, maintain open communication with your attorney and, if applicable, the opposing party. Cooperate within the boundaries advised by your legal representation, aiming for a resolution that aligns with your rights and the best interests of all parties involved.

Remember, the guidance provided here is general, and seeking personalized legal advice is very important. Each case is unique, and a qualified attorney can provide custom guidance based on the specific circumstances of your situation.

How Can You Protect Your Work From Criminal Offenders

In the digital age, protecting creative works from criminal offenders requires a proactive approach that leverages technology and cybersecurity measures. Detecting and preventing digital copyright infringement involves a combination of technological tools and best practices aimed at securing intellectual property. Here’s an overview of key strategies:

  • Digital Watermarking: Digital watermarking involves embedding unique identifiers within digital files, making it possible to trace and identify the origin of content.
  • Copyright Management Systems: Implementing copyright management systems helps creators control access to their works and monitor usage. These systems often include features such as access restrictions, usage tracking, and digital rights management (DRM) to protect against unauthorized distribution.
  • Monitoring and Takedown Services: Utilize monitoring services that continuously scan online platforms for instances of copyright infringement. Automated tools can identify unauthorized use of copyrighted material and facilitate the issuance of takedown notices to remove infringing content.
  • Blockchain Technology: Blockchain provides a decentralized and transparent ledger, offering a secure way to verify and record ownership of digital assets. By leveraging blockchain for copyright registration, creators can establish a tamper-proof record of their work’s authenticity.
  • Encryption and Secure Transmission: Encrypting digital content and ensuring secure transmission methods protect works from unauthorized access during transfer. This protects against interception and unauthorized copying during data exchange.
  • Cybersecurity Best Practices: Adhering to cybersecurity best practices is fundamental. This includes securing networks, regularly updating software, and employing authentication mechanisms to prevent unauthorized access to digital files.
  • Licensing and Permissions: Clearly defining licensing terms and permissions for the use of copyrighted materials helps establish legal boundaries. This reduces the likelihood of unintentional infringement and provides a basis for legal action in case of violations.
  • Legal Action: In cases of persistent or severe infringement, be prepared to take legal action. Consult with legal professionals to explore options such as filing Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) notices, cease-and-desist letters, or pursuing litigation when necessary.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can copyright infringement become a criminal offense?

Yes, copyright infringement becomes a criminal offense when it involves intentional and willful violations on a commercial scale.

What is criminal copyright infringement?

Criminal copyright infringement refers to the intentional violation of copyright laws on a scale that warrants criminal prosecution. It involves willful and commercial-scale violations of copyright protections.

What factors influence the decision to bring criminal charges for copyright infringement?

Factors include financial gain, impact on the owner, scale of infringement, and willful engagement in copyright violations.

What steps should one take when accused of copyright infringement?

Steps include staying calm, gathering information, consulting legal advice, documenting original work, addressing allegations professionally, considering negotiation, and reviewing practices.

What are the potential penalties for criminal copyright infringement?

Penalties include fines, imprisonment, probation, community service, asset seizure, forfeiture, restitution, and civil damages.

Rae Marie Manar
Rae Marie Manar is a licensed lawyer with a Juris Doctor degree, specializing in copyright, data privacy, and intellectual law. With a wealth of education and expertise, she aids clients in going through the intricacies of these laws, guiding them through the legalities, processes, and requirements tailored to their personal and business needs.