So, you ever wonder whether they (and by “they”, I mean “the Man”) can throw you in jail for downloading some music or just doing your thing online?
In many cases, the answer is “yes”.
So, for some legal perspective:
While copyright has the noble goal of incentivizing progress and protecting authors from unfair competition, remedies, including statutory damages, have been increasing as copyright law attempts to fill in and add order where physical limitations used to impose order. There are few, if any, bright line rules in copyright law and concepts which may have had a place in traditional criminal law merely add to the legal thicket of confusion.
Violation of the copyright holder’s exclusive rights can trigger civil, or possibly criminal, penalties. Copyright infringement may qualify as a crime where it is done willfully and for either commercial advantage or private financial gain, or where the reproduction and distribution is on a large scale.
There are three levels of copyright infringement. Civil copyright infringement gives plaintiffs some leeway when establishing the monetary value of the harm at the expense of defendants, who may be liable for high levels of statutory damages. While the copyright owner may claim “actual damages and any additional profits of the infringer,” the copyright owner may also elect to recover, “an award of statutory damages for all infringements involved in the action.” Statutory damage awards range from $750 to $150,000. Criminal copyright infringement, according to 17 U.S.C. § 506(a), occurs when the value of the copied works total $1,000 or more. Copyright infringement may be a felony when there are at least 10 copies – worth more than $2,500 – reproduced and/or distributed within 180 days.
What this means, is that if you “willfully” infringe someone’s copyright you can be liable for crazy high statutory damages, if not jail time. It may be unlikely that the government comes after you, but it’s not because they can’t, it’s entirely down to prosecutorial discretion. In Sony BMG Music Entertainment v. Tenenbaum the record labels came after some random college student who admitted he downloaded the music so he was stuck with hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. And that’s just CIVIL copyright infringement.
In theory, anyone who posts some remixed fan video/slideshow with unlicensed music on Youtube is liable for jail time for criminal copyright infringement, a la Megaupload, if they state; “This is not my video, no copyright infringement intended.”
But you can always feel safe in the knowledge that squashing citizens, artists, or creative professionals that dare to innovate where “the Man” doesn’t want them to, is all in the interest incentivizing the the arts, so creative brilliance will reach out to illuminate the darkened corners of the world. Or at least, Mickey Mouse will reach that far – posting your stuff on the internet and attributing your sources may just get YOU thrown in jail.