Movie Piracy Laws

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 What Is Movie Piracy?

In short, movie piracy is the illegal act of selling, acquiring, or distributing films or works that are copyrighted. Specifically, movie piracy falls under the infringement under the umbrella of intellectual property laws. A copyright is the legal right to prevent others from using one’s originally authored work.

Copyright law is similar to trademark law, which covers logos and brand names, and protects inventions. For a copyright, the item or work that is to be copyrighted should be an original work, and not a reproduction or copy of property that has already been copyrighted. Movies are one form of an original work that can be copyrighted.

It is important to note that the act of movie piracy covers a wide range of different forms of intellectual property theft. For example, movie piracy laws have evolved to cover the act of downloading films on a file sharing network and streaming them for personal use.

Pirating movies has been around since people were able to duplicate films, and continues to be a growing problem in the United States. Nowadays pirating movies most commonly occurs over the internet. In fact, one of the most common forms of movie piracy is peer-to-peer sharing websites and platforms which allow users to install content for free or download movies for free without the owner’s permission.

Because of the relative ease to pirate movies in the digital age, the Motion Picture Association of America has lobbied and taken measures to pursue and hold copyright violators of movies accountable for their illegal actions. Through lobbying efforts, the Motion Picture Association of America worked with lawmakers to increase the penalties associated with pirating movies, with many charges resulting in a felony charge.

What Are the Laws Regarding Movie Piracy?

As mentioned above, movie piracy is a subset of laws that protect movies under the umbrella of intellectual property laws. It is also important to note that every state will typically have their own laws regarding what constitutes movie piracy. Further, the federal government also provides legal protections for owner’s of films, as well as criminal penalties for any person that violates the film owner’s copyright.

Under United States federal law, an individual receives a copyright to their work automatically once they have “fixed” their original work in a “tangible medium of expression.” Additionally, the original author must have independently created the work, and not adapted it from something else. The work must then be placed in a sufficiently permanent medium so that others can reproduce, view, and/or communicate it. As can be seen, a movie meets all of the conditions for automatic copyright protection once the film is fixed.

However, a film owner will typically also contact the United States Patent and Trade Office (“USPTO”) in order to obtain an official copyright. Obtaining a copyright from the USPTO provides additional protections, with the most important protection being that the film is added to the database and any person that attempts to violate the copyright after the date the copyright is obtained will automatically be deemed an infringement.

Once again, copyright infringement, specifically movie piracy, occurs when a person violates a copyright owner’s exclusive rights, without the express consent of the creator. The following is a list of copyright infringements which may occur when a person commits the act of movie piracy:

  • Infringement of the Right of Reproduction: Once again, copyright owners maintain the exclusive right to reproduce their movie in any fixed form. This means that when a person reproduces a movie by copying and selling it, that act is considered to be infringing an owner’s right of reproduction;
  • Infringement of the Right of Distribution: When a person pirates a movie, such as by selling unlicensed copies of a movie for financial gain, that person infringes upon the owner’s right of distribution; and
  • Infringement of the Right of Public Display: Copyright owners also have the right to publicly show their work, including publishing their work online. As such, when a movie pirate publishes a film online, without the owner’s permission to do so, that is considered infringing a copyright owner’s right of public display.
    • For example, releasing a movie online for the general public, such as by filming the movie in a theater and publishing it online, without the owner’s permission, would be considered an infringement of the right of public display.

As mentioned above, there are various movie copyright laws that provide movie owner protections. The following is a list of federal movie copyright laws that restrict movie piracy:

  • The U.S. Copyright Act: This federal Act provides legal protection against the duplication of copyrighted material and distribution of copied materials, including movies.
    • The Act also provides the ability of a copyright owner to initiate civil lawsuits to protect copyrights and also makes many copyright violations criminal offenses;
  • The Digital Millennium Copyright Act: This federal Act prohibits any methods used to get around anti-piracy measures built into copyrighted works, such as programs that prevent DVDs from being copied;
  • The Family Entertainment and Copyright Act: This federal Act makes recording in a theater a federal crime, as well as providing civil and criminal penalties for pirating works that have not been released yet commercially; and
  • The No Electronic Theft Act: This federal Act outlaws the reproduction, distribution, and sharing of movies.
    • It is important to note that even if the infringing party acts without commercial purpose and has no financial gain, they are still liable for penalties under the act.

In addition to federal laws that provide copyright protections to movies, there are also state laws that provide protections for copyright owners and criminal penalties for movie pirates.

What Are the Penalties for Pirating Movies?

As mentioned above, a person that violates a movie copyright is subject to both civil and criminal liability. Once again, a copyright owner has the right to sue an infringing party for the actual damages that they suffered as a result of the party infringing upon their copyright.

As far as the exact criminal legal penalties for pirating movies, that will depend on the exact scope of the violation. For individuals that are caught illegally downloading a film without an owner’s permission, they will typically face less severe criminal penalties than that of a person that illegally distributes movies for financial gain.

Movie pirating may be charged as either a misdemeanor or felony. Typically, felony charges for movie pirating are reserved for persons who attempt to sell or distribute pirated content, such as through torrenting websites.

Examples of criminal penalties that a person may face for illegally downloading a film is imprisonment of up to 5 years, and statutory damages of $150 to $150,000 for each pirated file. Felony punishments can result in lengthy prison sentences of more than 5 years, and criminal fines of up to $250,000 for each pirated file.

Are There Any Defenses to Movie Piracy?

One of the most common defenses to movie piracy is the “fair use” defense. A “fair use” defense allows a defendant to avoid liability if their use of a copyrighted item was used for an educational purpose. For example, showing a copyrighted documentary to a high school history class would likely constitute fair use. Other than fair use, the only other defense that is available for movie piracy is typically showing that the person had permission from the owner to utilize the work.

Do I Need a Lawyer?

If you have any questions, concerns, or disputes associated with movie piracy, it is in your best interests to consult with an experienced copyright lawyer in your area.

An experienced attorney will be able to help you understand your legal rights and options according to the laws of your specific state. An attorney will also be able to represent you in court, as needed, should the need for legal action arise.

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