Many people think that they can download songs illegally or stream pirated movies online without getting into trouble. This is especially true when consumers don’t understand how illegal downloading laws work. In reality, anyone who uses copyrighted materials or intellectual property without the owners’ permission may face hundreds of thousands in fines for illegal downloading violations. The prison sentences aren’t lenient either. But under which circumstances is piracy a felony?
While individuals who download songs illegally for personal use are exposing themselves to a civil lawsuit, repeat offenders and willful violators are typically subject to criminal prosecutions. In those cases, piracy is certainly a felony.
In this article, we cover all that you need to know about civil vs. criminal charges, illegal downloading laws on the state level, and potential defenses that felons can use. At the end, this should answer our initial question: Is piracy a felony and what the types of infringements make it so?
Illegal Downloading Laws: The Basics
While federal and state rules may treat this issue differently, there are common concepts that apply across the board. These terms play a key role in defining the punishments and fines for illegal downloading.
- Piracy: When someone downloads movies, music, and/or software without the producer’s permission, they commit piracy. This applies to peer-to-peer sharing websites and platforms that allow users to install content for free.
- Copyright Infringement: This is another term for piracy. Illegal downloading laws certainly apply to copyright infringement.
- Torrenting: A torrent is an online database that enables users to share and exchange digital files. While these platforms, in themselves, are lawful, using them to download songs illegally is crime known as “torrenting.”
- Cam Ripping: An alternative term for piracy, ripping is the act of filming movies in a theater and making them available online.
- Sharing and Selling: Luckily, illegal downloading laws sometimes treat sharing copyrighted content with friends or family and selling it differently. However, both of them are still unlawful.
Charges and Fines for Illegal Downloading: Civil vs Criminal Penalties
Private and public entities, alike, enforce illegal downloading laws. The former includes law firms in the entertainment/publishing industry and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).
Additionally, federal and state governments follow their own mechanisms to punish those who download songs illegally or stream pirated movies. See the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
In most cases, when a private group initiates civil charges against an offender, they offer them the opportunity to pay a settlement and conclude the case outside of court.
However, if the judges get involved, they may charge defendants with a felony or other criminal offenses. Moreover, courts will assess the punishments and fines for illegal downloading acts. They break them down as follows:
- Jail or Prison: In most cases, only users who attempt to sell or distribute pirated content (such as through torrents) will face incarceration. Illegal downloading laws, when it comes to felony charges, carry a prison sentence of up to five years.
- Criminal Penalties, Fines, and Statutory Damages: Federal courts may fine you between $200 and $150,000 for each record. For example, a court recently made a college student pay $22,500 on each pirated file. In total, the 25-year-old incurred $675,000 in penalties after they installed 30 copyrighted songs. Above all else, fines for illegal downloading felony cases have a harsher maximum fine that could reach $250,000.
- Actual Damages: Alongside the copyright holder’s lost income, violators must pay the plaintiff’s legal expenses and attorney fees when they lose a piracy lawsuit.
Is Piracy a Felony? Let’s Answer That Question
Illegal downloading laws and sentences will depend on why you downloaded copyrighted files and how often you did so. Equally as important, your state’s rules can influence your sentence and fines for illegal downloading violations.
Why did you stream movies or download songs illegally?
If you did it for personal reasons (i.e. not to resell the content), the penalties are relatively lax. However, violators are still breaking illegal downloading laws.
In this case, the copyright holder may file civil, rather than criminal, charges. The federal government rarely prosecutes individuals who consume pirated content on a personal level. If they do, is piracy a felony in this case?
No. The the courts may slap offenders with a misdemeanor, but not a felony.
Those who distribute or share the content, on the other hand, are committing felonies. In fact, illegal downloading laws treat it as such even if the violator doesn’t make a profit.
For example, if you download songs illegally or make pirated copies of videos to send them to a friend or family member, the legal system will consider that a distribution.
Again, the government and private entities don’t go after individuals very often. Instead, they target those who sell copyrighted content or make it available en-masse. Yet even if you stream movies or download songs illegally to share them with friends, you are guilty of a felony.
Above all else, when a private group, such as the RIAA, files civil charges against you, a court may add criminal violations and felony convictions to it. Even so, the recording industry hasn’t made progress slowing down illegal downloads by suing its customers.
However, those who make money from copyright infringement face harsher penalties than those who distribute it without the intention of making a profit.
How often do you download or share content?
As mentioned earlier, the fines for illegal downloading take the copyright holder’s lost income into consideration. Because of this, the severity of a violation depends on how many records were used.
For example, someone downloads ten songs and shares them with three of their friends via email.
In this scenario, the violator is responsible for the advertisement revenue or streaming fees that the publisher didn’t get on each of the ten songs and for every person (the three friends) who listened to the downloaded file instead of doing so on YouTube or Spotify (as an instance).
Moreover, individuals who don’t distribute any content but regularly download files illegally are more likely to face penalties and charges.
Lastly, just as with any other felony type, an offender’s history matters a lot. Courts will treat violators who previously broke illegal downloading laws more unfavorably than first-time offenders, even more so if they make a profit.
They may fine them with hefty fines and/or sentence them to prison for a longer period.
Illegal Downloading Laws Under United State Rules?
On December 16, 2019, Michigan’s “porch piracy” law went into effect. As a result, those who steal delivered packages from people’s porches are guilty of piracy.
More specifically, the new rule punishes thieves with misdemeanors. The Michigan law also levies felony charges for repeat offenders and sentences them to up to five years in prison or jail.
In Massachusetts, illegal downloading laws depend on how many files you install. If over 100 are involved, the state could incarcerate offenders for a maximum of two years and $100,000 in fines for illegal downloading.
Violators who pirate 1,000 or more files might spend up to five years behind bars and must pay up to $250,000 in penalties.
Some states’ illegal downloading laws are similar to federal rules. Others, meanwhile, may have stricter or lighter punishments that apply to specific acts, as is the case in Michigan.
Is piracy a felony under state laws? That has a lot to do with where you live, especially if the state government is also filing charges against you. Because of this, felons must consult with an attorney who thoroughly understands local and federal piracy laws.
Defenses for Copyright Infringement
Your defense depends on whether you are currently facing charges or if you are a currently housed inmate.
First and foremost, it is often difficult for prosecutors to prove someone’s wrongdoing. Finding evidence in a piracy case is even more challenging.
More specifically, prosecutors must show that you downloaded the content and provide evidence that tracks the action back to your IP address or account. To add to that, they must do so without illegally obtaining information about you.
Under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, accusers must obtain a warrant from a judge. Otherwise, they can’t search through someone’s private records. This rule certainly applies to digital data.
In short, even if the prosecutors prove that you illegally downloaded a song or movie, their case will fall short when they violate the Fourth Amendment and gather information about you without a search warrant.
What happens when the evidence against you is strong or if prosecutors obtained a warrant?
This scenario requires you to focus on having the charges and fines for illegal downloading reduced.
As mentioned earlier, accusers will ask for compensation that makes up for the lost income. In addition, they will attempt to make you pay for each record after you download songs illegally or install pirated versions of videos.
Firstly, try to prove that you didn’t distribute or sell the copyrighted content. If you show that you only downloaded the material for personal use, the amount that you have to compensate the record holder with may significantly drop.
Secondly, identify the platform that you used to download the music or videos. For example, if the content was on YouTube, the prosecutor will only make cents in ad revenues each time you play the song.
Because of this, their lost income from YouTube (or other ad-paying platforms) will be relatively small. However, if you download songs illegally from sources that require you to pay (such as iTunes), then they may ask you to pay them back the cost of each song.
Above all else, you should make sure that everything is organized and well-documented. After all, the longer the case becomes, the more legal expenses and damages that you have to incur.
In certain circumstances, you may still defend yourself even if the evidence of piracy is strong. Under United States federal law, the statute of limitations on copyright infringement is only three years.
That is to say, prosecutors cannot sue you if you illegally downloaded a song or movie more than three years ago.
Equally as important, you may rely on the fair use doctrine as a defense. However, this is only the case if you used the copyrighted content for educational or informative purposes.
When a consumer downloads a news video to teach a class about a certain topic or to create a YouTube video that explains an important issue, record holders can’t sue you. The fair use doctrine is exempt from illegal downloading laws.
Yet keep in mind that you need to provide sufficient evidence that you used the copyrighted material for an educational or charitable purpose. Otherwise, the fair use doctrine will not help your case.
Is piracy a felony when someone is facing criminal charges?
Keep in mind that most piracy cases are civil and not criminal. Yet when someone attempts to distribute or sell copyrighted material, they will very likely face criminal felony charges.
It is important to remember that the statute of limitations for civil charges is only three years. In criminal cases, on the other hand, prosecutors can sue you for up to five years after you download songs illegally or make pirated copies of videos.
Both the prison sentence and fines are much harsher for criminal copyright law violations. Additionally, the government, rather than the record holder, might act as the prosecutor.
In those instances, your first step should be to understand whether you are charged with violating state or federal illegal downloading laws (or both).
If your state is filing charges, then it is crucial to know how piracy is defined and the punishment for it. Some states, such as Michigan, have an expanded list of crimes that constitute copyright infringement (porch piracy, for instance).
Illegal Downloading Laws and Criminal Defenses
There are two aspects that determine whether or not the federal government will file felony charges against copyright infringers. Firstly, the scope of the violation. Secondly, the strength of the case.
To clarify, federal authorities will not prosecute criminal offenders unless they commit a serious violation (such as selling or distributing pirated materials). Otherwise, infringers are more likely to face civil charges, if any at all.
Moreover, federal prosecutors handle cases that have strong evidence. For example, a court charged you with civil penalties. After that, if you continue to break piracy laws, the federal government may step in.
Your previous convictions provides them with a solid case and potentially key pieces of evidence, especially when you commit other crimes.
Similarly, if you have a strong defense or justification (such as the fair use doctrine), the federal government will likely not file charges. This could be true regardless of whether it’s your first offense or not.
However, perhaps most importantly, illegal downloading laws give federal authorities the right to prosecute all types of violators, even first-time infringers and cases without solid evidence.
In other words, the scope of your violation and your defense only define the likelihood of whether or not you will face criminal charges. Otherwise, the federal government can still prosecute anyone who breaks piracy laws.
The fines for illegal downloading are hefty in civil and criminal cases, alike, although the latter tends to be more punishing.
Willfulness as Evidence
Most of the time, copyright holders will send offenders a ‘cease and desist’ letter. In it, they notify violators of their wrongdoing and demand that they immediately halt their illegal actions.
When someone ignores that, federal authorities and the courts view that as “willfulness.” More specifically, it highlights that the infringer is aware of their illegal act and the fact that civil or criminal charges may be filed against them.
Yet they continue to download songs illegally or stream pirated movies in order to sell and/or distribute the materials.
Willfulness is a key factor that determines whether or not the federal government will prosecute someone.
Illegal Downloading Laws and a Comprehensive View
People must take piracy laws seriously. Otherwise, they can end up with a lawsuit, civil charges, and, at times, a federal prosecution. Repeat offenders and those who profit from copyright infringement are more likely to go to trial for criminal, felony-level violations.
Furthermore, each state has its own way of monitoring and enforcing illegal downloading laws. Some of them are even more strict that the federal government.
Nonetheless, regardless of whose laws you break, the fines for illegal downloading are hefty. They can reach up to $250,000 in felony cases, if not more. Similarly, felony-level violations could land you with a years (if not decades) long prison sentence.
Going forward, felons must understand the charges that are being brought against them. After that, they can define the type of legal help that they need and potential defenses.
The fair use doctrine and statute of limitations are both valid justifications in court. However, repeat offenders, ‘willful’ violators, and anyone who benefits financially/commercially from piracy may have a harder time using these defenses, especially when the evidence against them is strong.At the end of the day, the scope of your infringement, your legal history, and the type of prosecution that you face will define your case. Some may be able to prove their innocence, while others may only have the option of negotiating a lower settlement and reducing their fines for illegal downloading.
That should answer the original question: Is piracy a felony?