Statutory damages for copyright infringement is a concept that frequently comes up when discussing the benefits of copyright registration or potential recovery in a copyright infringement lawsuit. It can be a bit confusing to those that are unfamiliar with the term. However, like most things in the law, you can figure out what a term means by breaking it down into smaller parts.
“Statutory” means something that is required, permitted, or enacted by statute. Essentially, this term describes any written law. “Damages” refers to monetary compensation awarded in a civil action — in other words, money won in a lawsuit. Statutory damages, thus, refers to any monetary awards won pursuant to a statute.
In the copyright infringement context, statutory damages flow from a written law — namely, 17 USC § 504. This code section provides for the recovery of a range of monetary awards under certain conditions. Standard, run-of-the-mill copyright infringement statutory damages range between $750 and $30,000 per work infringed. If you think $30,000 is steep, be advised these damages can be enhanced to a sum of not more than $150,000 in a case where the copyright owner proves and the court finds the infringement at issue was committed willfully. On the other hand, the court may reduce the damages award to a sum of not less than $200 if it finds that the infringer was not aware and had no reason to believe that his or her acts constituted an infringement of copyright.
Remember when those peer-to-peer file sharing cases were making headlines? The recording industry sued hundreds of peer-to-peer users for downloading and distributing music via sites like Napster, Grokster, Kazaa, Limewire, and more. The massive statutory awards — often hundreds of thousands of dollars or more — in those cases were calculated using the figures above. For example, if you willfully infringed five timely copyrighted mp3s, you could potentially be liable for $750,000 (5 x $150,000). There are many other considerations at play but this is the basic framework of statutory damages for copyright infringement.
The most important takeaway here is that, if you are creating content and want to protect your work so as to receive maximum benefits under the law, the only way to be entitled to statutory damages for copyright infringement is to register your work with the US Copyright Office prior to infringement or within three months of first publication.
Do you think $150,000 is a fair award for a single, willful act of copyright infringement? Share your thoughts in the comments below.