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What Is Internet Copyright Infringement?

By Charity Delich
Updated Feb 21, 2024
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Under general copyright law, if an original work has been copyrighted, the owner of that work has the exclusive right to use, publish, disseminate, or change that work for a certain amount of time. Another person or entity cannot use or distribute the work without the owner’s permission. If a person attempts to use or distribute the work without authorization, he or she may be found guilty of copyright infringement. This general copyright principle extends to works created or posted on the Internet. Internet copyright infringement occurs when a person or entity uses or circulates information over the Internet without authorization from the entity or person who has the exclusive, legal right to that information.

Internet copyright infringement is a form of intellectual property theft, and it can lead to significant legal penalties and security issues. Common Internet copyright violations include illegally downloading music files and movies as well as pirating certain types of software applications. Posting a copyrighted work, such as a drawing or writing, online without permission from the owner may also constitute Internet copyright infringement.

Online copyright infringement can result in a range of legal problems for unauthorized users. Typically, the penalties for Internet copyright infringement vary based on the severity of the crime. People found guilty of lesser types of infringement, such as illegally downloading a couple of music files, may simply be fined. Greater violations, however, can lead to jail time.

People who participate in illegal Internet downloading can inadvertently put their computer security systems at risk. Computer hackers often capitalize on web sites that provide users with the ability to illegally download music, videos, and software. Some hackers purposely infect the files on these sites with harmful codes that can be difficult to uncover and eliminate. An Internet user’s computer may become infected when one of these contaminated files is downloaded on it.

In order to avoid Internet copyright infringement, an Internet user should determine whether he or she has permission to use or distribute a particular work. Many web sites post their “terms of use” policies online. These policies usually detail how the information contained in the site can be used. Some sites may limit use, depending on the reason, audience, and manner in which the work is going to be used. For example, a research company may only give permission to post a report on a secure website that is accessible only by students at a university.

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Discussion Comments
By rjh — On Jun 04, 2011

@roser - One popular case of internet copyright infringement that happened recently was based around a website called Oink, which was an invite only site to download albums, including many that had yet to be released. It had basically any album you could think of.

Eventually it got shut down by British and Dutch police agencies. Some former members of the site were arrested and questioned but then released without being charged of anything. I think some members got community service and small fines. As far as I know the owner of the site was never convicted of anything.

I’d like to hear of anyone who received jail time and what for as well. I find internet law to be quite interesting.

By roser — On Jun 02, 2011

Surely you can’t be sent to jail simply for breaking internet copyright laws? I’ve heard of people getting sent cease and desist letters from the MPAA, RIAA, ESA, etc. but I thought they were mostly hollow threats. I’d be interested to hear more about popular cases of internet copyright infringement and just how harsh the penalties can be.

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