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Is Copyright Infringement a Crime?

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Manish Jindal

January 25, 2024


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Is Copyright Infringement a Crime?

Is copyright infringement a crime? There are a lot of folks who are baffled by this query.

With the growing popularity of social media and the simplicity of sharing content on the internet, it’s becoming more common for humans to utilise protected content without giving proper acknowledgment or getting permission.

It’s understandable why so many people are tempted to share and utilise copyrighted content, whether it be memes or music videos.

The legal repercussions of such behavior, however, can be severe and range from fines to incarceration.

In this post, we’ll explore what copyright is, the various ways it can be violated, the associated legal repercussions, and how you can defend your rights and your creative output.

By the end, you ought to know more about whether or not copyright infringement is actually illegal.

From the Printing Press to the Digital Age: The Evolution of Copyright Law in India

The concept of copyright has a rich history, with its origins tracing back to the 15th century when the printing press was invented.

The need to protect written work prompted the introduction of copyright laws across the world, and India was no exception.

During British rule in India, the foundations of the said law were laid, and the first legitimate law was enacted in 1847.

This was followed by the Indian Copyright Act of 1914, which introduced significant changes, including the criminalisation of copyright infringement.

The criminalisation of infringement was a crucial development, as it recognised that infringement was not limited to monetary loss, but also affected the credibility and reputation of the content creator.

This led to the inclusion of criminal sanctions and punishments for copyright infringement in the said Act of 1914.

After India gained independence in 1947, a new copyright act was formulated in 1957, which superseded the Act of 1914 while retaining some of its provisions and introducing new concepts.

This Act has been amended five times since then, with changes made to keep pace with advancements in technology and development.

The criminalisation of copyright infringement remains an integral part of the Indian Copyright Act to this day, serving as a deterrent and making the law not only punitive but also protective of the rights of original content owners.

Copyright Infringement and Types of Infringement

Copyright infringement occurs when someone uses a copyrighted work without the permission of the actual holder, infringing on the exclusive rights granted to the copyright owner.

There are two main kinds of copyright infringement: direct and indirect.

Direct Infringement

Direct infringement happens when someone copies, distributes, performs, or displays a copyrighted work without permission from the copyright holder.

This includes using someone else’s work in whole or in part, such as reproducing a copyrighted image or using a copyrighted music track in a video.

Indirect Infringement

Indirect infringement can be further broken down into two subcategories: vicarious infringement and contributory infringement.

Related article: Difference Between Direct and Indirect Copyright Infringement

Vicarious Infringement

Vicarious infringement occurs when someone benefits financially from the infringing activities of another person and has the ability to control those activities but fails to do so.

This often involves businesses that profit from the unauthorised use of copyright-protected materials, like websites hosting copyrighted content without permission.

Contributory Infringement

Contributory infringement happens when someone knowingly provides assistance or support to another person’s infringing activities.

This may include providing the means to access or distribute copyrighted content, such as file-sharing software or online platforms.

Is Copyright Infringement a Crime?

Yes, acts of copyright infringement can be a crime in certain circumstances.

While infringement often leads to civil lawsuits where the actual content creator seeks damages or an injunction against the infringer, it can also result in criminal copyright infringement charges in cases of large-scale or willful infringement.

Here are some reasons why is copyright infringement a crime:

Economic Impact: Infringement of copyright can cause substantial financial losses for creators and copyright holders, as it often leads to a decrease in sales and revenue.

This financial impact can discourage creators from producing new works and stifle innovation.

Protection of Intellectual Property: Copyright laws aim to protect the rights of creators and their intellectual property. Criminalising copyright infringement is one way to ensure that these rights are respected and enforced.

Deterrence: By making infringement a crime in certain cases, the legal system aims to deter potential infringers from engaging in the unauthorised use of copyrighted material.

The threat of criminal penalties, such as imprisonment and fines, can serve as a strong deterrent to those considering engaging in copyright infringement.

Preservation of Creative Industries: Creative industries, such as film, literature, software, and the music industry rely heavily on the protection of the exclusive rights of ownership to maintain their economic viability.

Criminalising copyright infringement helps to protect these industries and the livelihoods of those who work in them.

Public Interest: In some instances, infringement of ownership rights can harm the public interest, particularly when it involves the unauthorised distribution of dangerous or harmful materials.

Criminalising such activities can help to protect the public and maintain societal values.

What is the Main Difference Between a Civil and Criminal Case in Copyright Infringement?

The main difference between a civil and criminal case in copyright infringement lies in the nature of the offense, the parties involved, and the potential consequences.

Civil Case:

Nature of the offense: In a civil case, the infringement is typically a violation of the copyright holder’s exclusive rights, such as reproduction, distribution, performance, or display of their work without permission.

Parties involved: The parties involved in a civil case are usually the copyright holder (plaintiff) and the alleged infringer (defendant). The holder of exclusive rights initiates the lawsuit to seek remedies for the infringement.

Potential consequences: In a civil case, the remedies sought by the copyright holder may include monetary damages, which can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars per work infringed, and injunctions to prevent further infringement.

Civil cases do not result in imprisonment.

Criminal Case:

Nature of the offense: In a criminal case, the infringement is usually large-scale or willful, meaning the infringer knowingly and intentionally violated the copyright holder’s rights for personal or financial gain.

Parties involved: The parties involved in a criminal case are the government (prosecutor) and the alleged infringer (defendant).

The government initiates the case on behalf of the public interest, seeking to punish the infringer and deter others from engaging in similar activities.

Potential consequences: In a criminal case, the penalties for copyright infringement may include imprisonment, with the length of the sentence varying depending on the specific laws in each jurisdiction.

Criminal fines can also be levied against individuals or organisations found guilty of infringement.

Civil cases focus on compensating the copyright holder and stopping further infringement, while criminal cases aim to punish the infringer and deter others from committing similar offenses.

How to Identify Whether Infringement is Civil or Criminal?

To identify whether a copyright infringement is civil or criminal, you can consider the nature, scale, and intent of the infringement.

While both types involve unauthorised use of copyrighted material, there are key factors that distinguish between civil and criminal infringement:

Civil Infringement:

Scale and impact: Civil copyright infringement generally occurs on a smaller scale and may have a limited impact on the copyright holder’s revenue or market. The unauthorised use may be isolated or involve only a few instances of infringement.

Intent: In civil infringement cases, the infringer may not have acted with malicious intent or for financial gain. The infringement could be unintentional or result from a misunderstanding of copyright law.

Legal action: In civil cases, the copyright holder initiates the legal action, seeking remedies such as monetary damages and injunctions to prevent further infringement.

Criminal Infringement:

Scale and impact: Criminal copyright infringement typically involves large-scale or systematic infringement, causing significant harm to the content creator’s revenue and market position.

Intent: In criminal infringement cases, the infringer acts knowingly and willfully, violating the holder’s rights for personal or financial gain. This type of infringement is deliberate and intended to benefit the infringer at the expense of the original holder of exclusive rights to the content.

Legal action: In criminal cases, the government initiates legal action on behalf of the public interest, seeking to punish the infringer and deter others from engaging in similar activities.

To determine whether an infringement of ownership right is civil or criminal, consider the scale and impact of copyright infringement, the intent of the infringer, and the nature of the legal action.

If you are unsure about a specific case or have concerns about the potential infringement, consult with a legal professional experienced in copyright law for guidance.

Criminal Copyright Infringement Cases

The Barbie Case: Criminal Copyright Infringement

The highly publicised case regarding Barbie involved a major criminal case involving the breach of copyright and trademark.

The case established that a criminal lawsuit can only be filed if it meets the necessary criteria for a criminal case.

The plaintiff in the case, Mattel Inc., held the trademark and copyright for the popular product, Barbie, which included the doll’s dress type, decoration, specific features, and logo.

The defendant was sued under various sections of the Copyright Act, Cr. PC, IPC, and Trademark Act, among others.

The court referred to the Gian Singh v. The State Bank of Punjab case and dismissed all criminal charges, stating that the dispute had a predominantly civil nature and was a commercial and mercantile dispute.

The court ruled that the FIR was flawed and ordered the return of seized copies, emphasising that a civil suit remains civil unless it qualifies as a criminal case according to the Act or precedents.

This landmark case marked the first time that a criminal lawsuit was contested for copyright infringement, and it had a significant impact on the understanding of criminal legislation related to copyright in India.

Criminal Offences of Copyright Infringement are Cognisable: Abdul Sathar v. Nodal Officer, Anti-Piracy Cell

Abdul Sathar v. Nodal Officer, Anti-Piracy Cell was a groundbreaking judgment that challenged the very nature of the copyright infringement criminal offense prosecuted under Section 63 of the Copyright Act.

The petitioner raised a crucial question about the validity of the offense being a cognizable one, and the court relied on the rules of Cr. P.C. to distinguish the different degrees of offenses according to their sentences.

As the punishment for the offense under Section 63 of the said Act involves imprisonment for up to three years, it falls under Category 2 of the Cr. P.C., which includes offenses where the punishment of imprisonment for seven years and below is possible, and is thus considered cognizable.

This judgment set a significant precedent, as it established that criminal offenses related to copyright infringement are indeed cognizable, provided there are no disputes regarding the same in terms of the Act, principles, or precedents.

This decision clarified the legal standing of copyright infringement as a criminal offense and reinforced the importance of protecting intellectual property rights.

Related Article: Copyright infringement cases in India

Prosecution for Copyright Infringement

Prosecution for copyright infringement involves taking legal action against individuals or organisations that have allegedly violated the exclusive rights of a copyright holder.

There are two main types of legal actions for copyright infringement: civil and criminal.

Civil Prosecution

Under the Copyright Act, the copyright owner has the right to civil remedies of injunction, damages, and accounts if their copyrighted work has been infringed.

However, if the infringer can prove that they were unaware and had no reasonable ground for believing that copyright existed in the work at the time of infringement, the content owner will only be entitled to an injunction.

The injunction

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is the most effective remedy for copyright infringement. It is a legal process through which the infringer is restrained from continuing the infringing acts or ordered to restore the position which stood before the infringement.

Damages are compensation provided to the copyright owner to restore them to their previous position.

The damages amount is generally determined by several factors, such as the amount the copyright holder would have received if the infringer had obtained a license for the infringing acts, loss of reputation, loss of profit to the copyright holder, decrease in the sale of the copyright holder’s work, etc.

Accounts are another remedy available to the copyright owner. The infringer can be asked to submit an account of the profits made from the sale of the copied works and pay that amount to the copyright owner.

This remedy ensures that the infringer is held accountable for the profits they made from the infringement.

Criminal Prosecution

Copyright infringement is a serious offense under the Copyright Act, 1957. When someone intentionally or knowingly infringes or aids in infringing a copyrighted work, they commit a criminal offense.

This means that if a copyright owner files a criminal suit for copyright infringement, the offender can face imprisonment for a minimum of six months and a maximum of three years, along with a minimum fine of Rs. 50,000 and a maximum fine of Rs. 2 lakhs.

In cases of subsequent and second convictions, the punishment becomes more severe, with imprisonment for a minimum of one year and a maximum of three years, along with a minimum fine of Rs. 1 lakhs and a maximum fine of Rs. 2 lakhs.

It’s also essential to note that any police officer not below the sub-inspector rank can seize the infringing copies without a warrant when they believe that a copyright infringement offense has been committed and produce them before the Magistrate.

Understanding Fair Use: When Using Copyrighted Material is Legal

It’s important to note that not all uses of copyright-protected material constitute infringement.

Fair use is a legal doctrine that allows for limited use of copyrighted works without permission under certain circumstances, such as criticism, commentary, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research.

To determine whether a use is considered fair, courts often consider factors such as

  • the purpose and character of the use,
  • the nature of the copyrighted work,
  • the amount and substantiality of the portion used, and
  • the potential effect on the market for the copyrighted work.

Complexities in Copyright Law and Fair Dealing

Section 52 of the Copyright Act is a provision that deals with “fair dealing,” which is a complex legal question.

There are also specific clauses in the Act that extinguish copyright in certain circumstances.

For instance, if a work is already protected by the Designs Act of 2000 and has exceeded a specific limit of reproduction, it cannot assert protection under the Copyright Act.

Determining whether there has been a copyright infringement is a convoluted process since the court has to conduct a case-by-case analysis using the substantial similarity test, which takes into account both qualitative and quantitative factors.

Overall, the Copyright Act is a nuanced piece of legislation that requires careful interpretation and application by legal professionals.

Protecting Your Work

As a content creator, protecting your work from infringement is essential.

Let’s explore some practical examples of how you can safeguard your work from copyright infringement:

Copyright Registration

Let’s say you’re a photographer and have captured some amazing shots. To protect your images, you can register them with the copyright office in your country.

By doing so, you establish your ownership of the images and can take legal action if someone uses your work without permission.

For example, if you discover that a company has used one of your images without permission, you can take legal action to enforce your ownership rights.

Related Article: Copyright registration in India

Use Watermarks

If you’re a graphic designer and have created some stunning designs, you can add watermarks to them to protect them from being used without your permission.

For example, if you design a logo for a client, you can add a watermark to the image before sending it to the client for approval. This ensures that the logo cannot be used without your permission until the client pays for the final design.

Use Licenses

If you’re a musician and have recorded a new song, you can use Creative Commons licenses to grant others permission to use your work under certain conditions.

For example, you can allow non-commercial use of your song as long as the user credits you as the creator. This way, you can protect your work while also allowing others to use it for non-commercial purposes.

Monitor Your Work

As a content creator, safeguarding your intellectual property is crucial.

Utilising tools like Google Alerts can help you monitor and detect any unauthorised use of your work across various online platforms.

However, for a more comprehensive approach to protect your diverse content, including movies, TV series, music, e-books, articles, software, photos, graphics, online courses, and video games, consider leveraging “BytesCare’s Digital Piracy Monitoring” service.

Our specialised service supports all file and media formats, providing thorough protection for your valuable assets.

Whether it’s a literary piece, a musical composition, or a visual creation, our digital piracy monitoring is designed to keep your work secure.

Stay informed about any potential misuse, allowing you to promptly take action and safeguard your intellectual creations effectively

Work with Trusted Partners

If you’re a filmmaker and are collaborating with others on a project, make sure you work with people or companies that respect intellectual property rights.

For example, you can work with a reputable production company that has a good reputation for respecting copyright laws.

Use Legal Agreements

As a content creator, you can use legal agreements such as contracts or licenses that clearly state the terms and conditions of use for your work.

For example, if you’re a software developer, you can use a license agreement that sets out the conditions under which others can use your software.

Educate Others

Finally, as a content creator, you can educate others about your rights and the importance of respecting intellectual property rights.

For example, you can write blog posts or create videos that explain copyright laws and why they are important. This way, you can help prevent infringement and promote respect for creators and their work.

Reporting Infringement

If you believe your copyrighted work has been infringed upon, you can take action to enforce your rights.

This may involve sending a cease and desist letter to the infringer, filing a copyright infringement lawsuit, or reporting the infringement to relevant authorities, such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) agent of a website hosting the infringing content.

Avoiding Infringement

Avoiding substantial amounts of copyright infringement is crucial to ensure that you do not face any legal or financial consequences.

Here are some ways to avoid criminal or civil copyright violation, along with examples:

Get permission: Always obtain permission from the content owner before using their work. For example, if you want to use a song in your video, you can reach out to the artist or their record label to ask for permission.

Use works in the public domain: Works that are in the public domain can be used freely without permission. For instance, you can use Shakespeare’s plays, which are in the public domain, without worrying about the violation of authorship rights.

Use creative commons licenses: Creative Commons licenses allow the content creators to grant permission for specific uses of their work. For example, if you want to use a photograph, you can look for images that have a Creative Commons license.

Create your own work: By creating your own work, you can ensure that you do not infringe on anyone’s copyright. For example, if you need an image for your project, you can take your own photos or create your own graphics.

Give credit: If you use someone else’s work, always give proper credit to the creator. For example, if you use a quote from a book in your presentation, you can mention the author and the title of the book.

Educate yourself: Learning about copyright laws and regulations is essential to ensure that you do not infringe on someone else’s work. For example, you can read about the said laws online or attend workshops on copyright and intellectual property rights.

By following these guidelines and being mindful of copyright laws, you can avoid criminal or civil copyright infringement and protect yourself and the rights of the creators.


In conclusion, it is important to recognise that both commercial and non-commercial infringement is a cognizable offenses and can have serious legal consequences.

Whether it is the subsequent offense of wilful copyright piracy, allegations of copyright infringement against internet service providers, or the mass reproduction of copyright without permission, content creators have the right to seek judicial determination and pursue criminal measures.

Liability for copyright infringement extends to the production and distribution of copyrighted material, and it is crucial to understand the relationship between the infringement and the production of copyright.

To combat this issue, it is essential for individuals and organisations to take proactive steps to prevent infringement, including seeking proper authorisation and licensing.

Only by respecting copyright laws can we promote creativity, innovation, and fair compensation for intellectual property owners.

FAQs on Is copyright violation a Crime

What is the difference between copyright and trademark?

Copyright protects original works of authorship, such as sound recordings, literary, a piece of art, and musical works, while trademarks protect brand names, logos, and slogans that identify the source of goods or services.

Can ideas be copyrighted?

No, copyright protects the tangible expression of ideas, not the ideas themselves.

This means that while a written story or a painting can be copyrighted, the underlying concepts or ideas cannot be.

For how much time is work protected by copyright?

In most cases, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years.

The standard protection period for works produced by a business or works-for-hire is 95 years from the date of publishing or 120 years from the date of production, whichever is shorter.

Is it necessary to register a work with a copyright office to receive copyright protection?

No, copyright protection is automatic upon the creation of a work in a tangible form.

However, registering your work with a copyright office can provide additional benefits, such as the ability to sue for damages in case of infringement.

What is Copyright?

Copyright is a form of intellectual property protection granted to the creators of original works, such as literary, artistic, musical, and certain other intellectual works.

It provides content creators with exclusive rights to reproduce, distribute, perform, display, or license their work.

The primary purpose of it is to encourage creativity and innovation by protecting the rights of creators.

What is criminal copyright infringement?

Criminal copyright infringement is the act of violating the copyright owner’s exclusive rights in a way that is criminalised by law, which can result in criminal charges and penalties.

This can include the reproduction, distribution, performance, or display of copyrighted material without the permission of the content owner, or with the intent to benefit financially or to cause harm to them.

It is a serious offense, and penalties can include imprisonment, fines, and other sanctions.

Criminal copyright infringement examples are:

a. Selling counterfeit copies of movies, music, or software.

b. Distributing copyrighted material without authorisation, such as sharing copyrighted movies or music on peer-to-peer networks.

c. Manufacturing or selling equipment that is designed to circumvent copyright protection, such as devices used to bypass copy protection on DVDs.

What are the exceptions to copyright infringement under Section 52 of the Copyright Act?

Section 52 of the Copyright Act outlines various exceptions to copyright infringement.

One such exception is when a piece of work is protected by the Designs Act of 2000, after which it cannot continue to be claimed as protected by the Copyright Act if it has been replicated more than a certain amount.

What is willful criminal copyright infringement?

Willful criminal copyright infringement refers to the intentional and deliberate violation of copyright law, with the infringer knowing that they are breaking the law.

Examples of willful acts of infringement include:

a. Uploading or sharing copyrighted material online without authorisation, despite knowing that such activity is illegal.

b. Reproducing and distributing copyrighted material for commercial advantage or financial gain, despite being aware that it is illegal and infringes upon the owner’s rights.

c. Removing or altering legally protected information from a work, such as the valid copyright notice or authorship information, with the intent of misleading others about the ownership of the material.

d. Ignoring repeated warnings or infringement notices, continuing to engage in infringing activity despite knowledge of the legal consequences.

  1. Uploading or sharing copyrighted material online without authorisation, despite knowing that such activity is illegal.
  2. Reproducing and distributing copyrighted material for commercial advantage or financial gain, despite being aware that it is illegal and infringes upon the owner’s rights.
  3. Removing or altering legally protected information from a work, such as the valid copyright notice or authorship information, with the intent of misleading others about the ownership of the material.
  4. Ignoring repeated warnings or infringement notices, continuing to engage in infringing activity despite knowledge of the legal consequences.

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