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Let's say an already obscenely rich individual in the US (whose wealth is unrelated to any crime) decides to reproduce unauthorized copies of a copyrighted work for a profit and gets caught. This person has illegally distributed enough of the work to incur the maximum amount of fines and prison time and just... agrees to all of it without a fight. And as soon as the fine is paid and the time is done, the individual repeats distribution of the same copyrighted work again, and repeats this process multiple times.

It'd be clear that because this person can continue doing this practically indefinitely due to their obscene wealth and willingness to endure punishment, it'd on the surface seem infeasible to prevent this person from continuing distribution due to copyright infringement having a codified punishment ceiling (to my knowledge a maximum of both 10 years in prison and $250,000 per offense, source).

In such a hypothetical case, do the law and/or the copyright owner actually have any teeth to stop this person from continuing to distribute, or can they just ride out the punishments and continue in perpetuity?

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  • You can commit practically any crime or tort if you're willing to pay the penalty if caught. There are rare situations where the law tries to prevent crimes, it uses them as a deterrant and to repair damages.
    – Barmar
    Apr 17, 2023 at 14:47

3 Answers 3

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If you have sufficient grounds to fear that someone is about to infringe on one of your rights, you can go to court to obtain an injunction against that person. This is a court order to refrain from some particular action. In many cases, the point of this is just to have the legal debate on whether the anticipated action is actually legal or not before it happens rather than after. However, the punishment for violating the injunction is set by the relevant judge based on how important it is to dissuade the target from actually doing the thing, and how extensive the punishment needs to be in order to achieve this.

After a few rounds of your guy doing the copyright infringement, getting an injunction against him doing it again should be quite straight-forward. And if he violates that, it would be reasonable to ask for a significantly higher fine next time, and then more, and more.

Injunctions could also involve preparatory actions, eg prohibit the guy to even approach a computer, if this is deemed necessary to prevent reoffending.

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  • 9
    You haven't explicitly stated that breaching an injunction can involve an unlimited fine (and/or unlimited jail time). Apr 17, 2023 at 7:09
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do the law and/or the copyright owner actually have any teeth to stop this person from continuing to distribute, or can they just ride out the punishments and continue in perpetuity?

Most copyright enforcement is not criminal. Typically, the copyright holder will sue for damages rather than depend on a prosecutor to bring criminal charges. Civil damages may be calculated from actual profits of the infringer and losses of the copyright holder or they may be awarded according to a statutory scheme where the maximum is $150,000 (17 USC 504).

Even if the enforcement in a particular case is criminal, 18 USC 2323(c) requires the court to award restitution to the victim. The maximum financial cost to the infringer, therefore, is greater than $250,000 per offense.

Even the $250,000 limit for the criminal fine may be exceeded if the infringer's profit or the copyright holder's loss exceeds $125,000, thanks to 18 USC 3571(d):

Alternative Fine Based on Gain or Loss.— If any person derives pecuniary gain from the offense, or if the offense results in pecuniary loss to a person other than the defendant, the defendant may be fined not more than the greater of twice the gross gain or twice the gross loss, unless imposition of a fine under this subsection would unduly complicate or prolong the sentencing process.

Even though the infringer may be able to afford this without any difficulty, the copyright holder will receive at least as much income from the restitution or civil award as would have been due under a license for the copyright.

But at its root, this question seems to be more about the ability of the courts to enforce injunctions. Courts' ability to enforce injunctions is discretionary, so if the statutory maximum fine for a felony seems insufficient to deter a billionaire from committing copyright infringement, the court can issue an injunction and enforce it with a fine that would be sufficient. 18 USC 401:

A court of the United States shall have power to punish by fine or imprisonment, or both, at its discretion, such contempt of its authority, and none other, as—

...

(3) Disobedience or resistance to its lawful writ, process, order, rule, decree, or command.

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Of course

Providing you are willing to accept the sanction, you can do anything you want: murder, genocide, making tea the way Americans do, and copyright violation.

This sign:

No Parking

Merely advisory providing you don't mind being fined, having your car clamped and possibly towed.

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    In London there have been complaints that some people actually park their cars this way, since they just pay the fine. Which isn't that much more than parking legal. At some point I worked in a place where parking fines where twice the cost of the parking garage, and you got fined once or twice a week on average. And I could park 20 meters from the office door. Then they increased the fines and I stopped.
    – gnasher729
    Apr 17, 2023 at 7:30
  • @gnasher729 I once had a customer where the parking was exactly like that. All the tradespeople (HVAC, plumbing, etc.) parked that way so I figured why not computer support. One time I got two tickets on the same day - I paid one and contested (successfully) the other as the first ticket should effectively be "park the entire day for this one low rate...". Note that this was not a fire lane, on street or otherwise impeding safe use of the roads, etc. It was a back alley only suitable for parking and deliveries as it ended in the middle of buildings. Apr 17, 2023 at 14:49

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