Just about any written or audiovisual work created today is protected by copyright. The basic principle of copyright is simple: The creator–or someone who acquires the copyright from the creator–has the right to decide when and where their work may be republished or reproduced. Anyone who copies the work without permission commits copyright infringement.

Now, copyright infringement is often handled as a civil matter. You have probably seen stories of companies like Disney sending cease-and-desist letters to people accused of infringing their copyrights. Such letters may later be followed by civil lawsuits seeking monetary damages against the alleged infringer. But can copyright infringement also lead to criminal prosecution?

Justice Department Charges Russian Nationals with Running Online E-Book Piracy Scheme

The answer is yes. Copyright infringement is a federal crime under certain circumstances. The main federal statute on this subject, 17 U.S.C. § 506, states that a person commits a crime if they “willfully” infringe a copyright and the infringement was committed:

  • for the purpose of commercial advantage or private financial gain;
  • by reproducing at least $1,000 in copyrighted works (based on retail value) within a 180-day period; or
  • distributing a copyrighted work on the Internet if the person “should have known” they were distributing a work “intended for commercial distribution” without permission.

So if you share a clip from a copyrighted film on your social media feed, you probably will not be charged with criminal copyright infringement, even if the clip is later taken down due to a copyright claim. But if you actually start reproducing and selling copyrighted works, that is a different story. This is when law enforcement may become involved.

For example, federal prosecutors in New York recently charged two Russian nationals with criminal copyright infringement and several other white collar crimes, such as wire fraud, in connection with an alleged scheme to operate “an online e-book piracy website.” The indictment, filed by a grand jury in Brooklyn, New York, alleged the two defendants willfully engaged in copyright infringement “for purposes of commercial advantage and private financial gain.” The U.S. Attorney’s office said the defendants’ ran a network of websites that sold “more than 11 million ebooks for download,” most of which was copyrighted works.

In addition to the actual criminal copyright infringement, the Russian defendants also face charges of wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and conspiracy to commit money laundering. As is common practice in white collar cases, the federal government is seeking not just jail time for the defendants but also forfeiture of any proceeds from their alleged criminal activities.

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As you can see, the federal government takes willful theft of intellectual property as seriously as any other crime involving money or property. So if you are suspected of such offenses it is in your best interest to work with an experienced Tampa white collar criminal defense attorney who can advise you of your rights and represent you in court. Contact Trombley & Hanes today to schedule an initial consultation.