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“Innocent” Criminals: Criminal Copyright Infringement, Willfulness and Fair Use


            On November 17, 2010, Gawker Media LLC published on its popular blog, Gawker, excerpts of Sarah Palin’s unreleased book America By Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith and Flag.[1]  In response to the release, Palin tweeted, “Isn’t that illegal?”[2]  Defending itself, Gawker mockingly wrote to Palin in a post titled Sarah Palin is Mad at Us for Leaking Pages From Her Book, telling her to “take a moment to familiarize yourself with the law.  . . . Or skip the totally boring reading and call one of your lawyers.  They’ll walk you through it” and attached pages on the copyright law’s fair use doctrine.[3]  After Gawker refused to remove the excerpts from its blog, Palin’s publisher, HarperCollins, filed suit against Gawker and obtained a preliminary injunction on November 20, 2010.[4]  By November 23, 2010, Gawker agreed to keep the material off its website for good and settled the suit with HarperCollins.[5]  Ignoring the underlying political and ideological tension between Gawker and Palin,[6] this incident highlights a very important issue: the complex and commonly misunderstood fair use doctrine. 

            The fair use doctrine has been a large source of legal uncertainty and, as a result, has led many civil copyright infringement suits to settle out of court.[7]  While it might be desirable that civil suits are settled out of court for judicial efficiency, the doctrine’s uncertainty poses a problem when fair use is used as an affirmative defense against criminal charges of copyright infringement under 17 U.S.C. § 506.[8]  In order to convict an individual of criminal infringement, the individual must have willfully infringed a copyright (1) for commercial or financial gain; (2) reproducing or distributing copies with a total retail value over $1000; or (3) making an unpublished work publicly available on a computer.[9]  The fair use doctrine states that there are certain uses, subject to a four factor balance test, where an individual can use or copy a copyrighted work without infringing.[10]  The fair use defense would then argue that either (1) the use was not infringing because it was a fair use; or (2) the individual did not willfully infringe because he or she believed the use was a fair use. 

            A problem arises when an individual believes in good faith his or her copying is a fair use but does not pass the factor test and is actually infringing.  Depending on the courts interpretation of “willfully,” this good faith, but mistaken belief, can be the difference between conviction and freedom.  As illustrated in the Gawker-Palin example, even sophisticated parties, who presumptively have personal legal counsel, misinterpret the bounds of the fair use doctrine.  If sophisticated individuals find difficulty in the nuances of the doctrine, what can be expected of the unsophisticated individual?  Since the mens rea of willfully is attached to a section 506(a) charge, barring a bad faith fair use defense, will a fair use defense always absolve a defendant?

            This article will look at the fair use doctrine as an affirmative defense against the criminal charge of copyright infringement under section 506(a) and whether it serves as a suitable defense within the statute, or whether the statute needs to be revised to avoid the problems created by the fair use doctrine.  Part II will give a brief background of section 506(a) for a charge of criminal copyright infringement and analyze the case law defining “willfulness” generally and its application to the mens rea of section 506(a).  Part III will review the fair use doctrine and the issues created when fair use is used as a defense.  Part IV will briefly examine certain policy considerations in relation to criminal copyright infringement.  Finally, this article will conclude that the fair use doctrine is too vague of a doctrine to be an effective defense and may reduce section 506(a) to a “toothless” statute.[11]  As a result, the statute should be amended by increasing the monetary criminal trigger from $1,000 to at least $25,000 and the term “willfully” needs to be defined in accordance with the majority view.


            Criminal copyright infringement is codified under 17 U.S.C. § 506(a) and the punishment guidelines is under 18 U.S.C. § 2319.[12]  Under section 506(a), criminal copyright infringement is anyone who willfully infringes a copyright (1) for commercial or financial gain; (2) reproducing or distributing copies with a total retail value over $1000; or (3) making an unpublished work publicly available on a computer if that person knew the work was intended for commercial distribution.[13]  To prove willful infringement, evidence of reproduction or distribution of a copyright work will not be sufficient.[14] The government has the burden to prove all four elements which are: (1) a valid copyright; (2) infringement of that copyright; (3) willfulness; and (4) one of the qualifying violations of section 506(a)(1)(A)-(C).[15]  The first two elements are the same that must be shown in a civil infringement case.[16]  The difference between civil and criminal infringement is the addition of the third and fourth element. 

            Unlike civil infringement, which is a strict liability offense, criminal infringement requires that the government prove the individual acted willfully.    However, the definition of “willfulness” has been left up to the courts’ interpretation since Congress failed to define it.[17]  Unfortunately, “willfulness” has long been a thorn in court’s side when used in the context of criminal law.[18]  It was not until United States v. Moran[19]that the court was confronted with interpreting the vague term’s meaning under section 506(a).

            In Moran, Moran was a full-time police officer and owner of a “mom and pop” video rental store.[20]  Moran made a practice of purchasing legal videos, making a single duplicate of the original, renting the copy, and keeping the original to “insure” the video from theft or damage.[21]  Moran testified that he believed his actions were legal.[22]  He argued that “the word ‘willful’ implies the kind of specific intent . . . which is to say, a voluntary, intentional violation of a known legal duty.”[23]  The government argued that willful only meant “an intent to copy and not to infringe.”[24]  In coming to its decision, the court looked to a prior Supreme Court case dealing with the term “willfully” in a criminal statute.

            In Cheek v. United States,[25] Cheek was charged with willfully failing to file federal income taxes and willfully attempting to evade his taxes.[26]  Cheek claimed that he believed the tax code was unconstitutional and therefore believed he did not have to pay taxes.[27]  The court held that while the “general rule that ignorance of the law or a mistake of law is no defense to criminal prosecution,” an exception is made when the term “willfully” is used in complex criminal statutes.[28]  Due to the complexity of the tax code, “willfulness . . . simply means a voluntary, intentional violation of a known legal duty.”[29]  The government then has the burden to prove that the defendant knew of the duty and voluntarily and intentionally violated it.[30]  Therefore, “a good faith belief that one is not violating the law negates willfulness, whether or not the claimed belief or misunderstanding is objectively reasonable.”[31]

       Using the reasoning of Cheek, the Moran court was persuaded that “willfully” carried the same meaning under 17 U.S.C. § 506(a) and was similarly exempt from the presumption that ignorance of the law or mistake of the law is no defense.[32]  Accordingly, the court held that Moran’s lack of sophistication, in addition to the totality of the circumstances, negated the willfulness requirement.[33] However, it should be noted, the lack of willfulness does not eliminate civil liability for copyright infringement.[34]

      The holding in Moran has since become the majority view, while the minority view interprets “willfully” as only the intent to copy.[35]  These two views are drastically different; from who carries the burden of proof to the consequence facing an individual who believed his use was protected by fair use.  Unlike the clear complexity of the tax code, the fair use doctrine appears straight-forward but is deceptively complex.[36]  Faced with this complexity, the statute should be amended to define “willfully” in accordance with the majority view and create consistency throughout the courts.

      The outcomes of a fair use balancing test can be unpredictable and creates uncertainty in its application.[37]  Applying the minor’s view, “innocent” infringers face the possibility of being labeled criminals.  By adopting the majority’s definition of “willfully”, prosecution will have the burden of showing that an individual has the mens rea warranting criminal punishment.  Additionally, by codifying the majority’s definition, there will be minimal disruption to current law.


      Section 107 of the Copyright Act allows for the use of a copyrighted work for limited purposes such as “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching . . ., scholarship, or research.”[38]  Whether that use is eligible for the fair use defense depends on the court’s evaluation of four factors set forth in section 107.[39] These four factors are: (1) the purpose and character of the use (i.e. whether such use is of a commercial nature or for nonprofit purposes); (2) the nature of the copyright (i.e. whether the work is fact based or creative); (3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and (4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.[40]  While the courts have held that all the factors must be examined and weighed together, the fourth factor has been given the most weight.[41]

      This first factor of the fair use doctrine is usually split into two separate questions.  The first question asks whether the use is “transformative,” meaning, whether it “supersede[s] the objects’ of the original creation.”[42]  The second question asks whether the use is “commercial.”[43]  Since “transformative” and “commercial” are general terms and are susceptible to various interpretations, the first factor can be confusing.  In Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios,[44]the court acknowledged that time-shifting[45] was an acceptable “private, noncommercial” transformative use “in the home”.[46]  However, when compared to BMG Music v. Gonzalez,[47]which held that Gonzalez’s music downloading on a try-before-you-buy basis was a commercial use, the line between commercial and noncommercial, especially for private, personal use, becomes hazy.  Both seem like private, noncommercial uses in the home for personal use, but Gonzalez’s actions supplant her actually purchasing music.[48]  This creates a fine distinction that the unsophisticated individual could misunderstand.  What exactly is commercial if personal use can be both commercial and noncommercial?  Is loading potentially infringing content on YouTube or a similar streaming website commercial if the user does not have a financial interest in the website?[49]

       If an individual posts a clip to his blog or YouTube of a scene from his favorite TV show, saying just that, he could believe he is protected by the fair use doctrine.  He believes the use is noncommercial because he’s not receiving any money from it and he is only using a small portion of the show.  He could believe that he’s making commentary on the piece by saying it is his favorite piece.  Finally, since he is not making any money from posting the video, he does not believe he has any effect on the copyrighted work’s market.  Within a 180 day period it is very possible that the video is viewed well over 100,000 times.  The $1000 or even the $2500 threshold under section 506(a) could easily be attained. 

     It is feasible that a court could find fair use under these facts or slightly different facts because of the variables of the balancing test.[50]  One commentator likened the fair use balancing test to “balancing a dinner plate on the pointy end of a nail.”[51]  Since each evaluation of fair use is fact specific, and all the factors vary in weight depending on those facts, the outcomes are sometimes unpredictable.  As such, the unpredictability of fair use seems to breed fertile ground for an individual to make a good faith mistake in evaluating his or her actions.

      Depending on the district an individual is in, and the interpretation of “willfulness” observed, this mistake can be the difference between walking away a free man or going away a felon.  If the court is within the majority, an individual can theoretically always negate “willfully,” absent evidence that the individual’s belief was not in good faith.  “If a person can claim ‘fair use’ and escape criminal penalties, then the law has no teeth since alleged infringers will invariably assert this defense.”[52]  Alternatively, if the court is within the minority, an individual will not be allowed a mistake defense and will only avoid conviction if the fair use analysis is successful.  These two outcomes are polar opposites; one is too lenient while the other is too severe. 


            Is the infringement of $1000 worth of copyrighted material worth labeling that individual a felon or criminal, even if he did not believe his actions were illegal?[53]  “Felon is a word that should be reserved for individuals committing crimes that damage a victim beyond repair through civil means.”[54] Civil remedies are more suitable in such a case. Incarceration for up to three years for the infringement of $2500 worth of copyrighted material[55] is excessive when civil remedies are available to recover those damages.  If the basis of enacting criminal laws are for “deterring future crimes, stigmatizing offenders, expressing community values, extracting retribution, reforming the offender, and so on,”[56]what are the “retributive function[s] . . . these statutes convey?”[57]  If the offender does not know his actions are illegal, the statute does not achieve these goals.  Furthermore, public opinion does not believe the punishment fits the crime in such low level infringement, as evidenced by the outcry over a Twilight fan’s arrest for taping a birthday party during a viewing of the film “New Moon.”[58]

            Additionally, the cost attributed to the enforcement and incarceration of such an offender is far too high.  Beyond the cost of prosecution, the costs of incarcerating the offender far exceeds the low infringing $2500 threshold.  Based on California’s 2008-2009 Annual Costs to Incarcerate an Inmate in Prison, the average cost per inmate per year is about $47,000.[59]  Theoretically, for a three year sentence, the government would be paying over $140,000 of taxpayer money to incarcerate a non-violent criminal for a $2500 infringement.  Additionally, the non-violent criminal would now be exposed to the dangers and violence inherent in prison.[60]


       While these low threshold cases with fair use issues are typically not prosecuted,[61]charges are still filed.[62]  The statute has the ability to make criminals out of people that do not know their actions are illegal or believe that they are legal.  By raising the threshold of section 506(a)(1)(B) to at least $25,000, the statute would be better able to avoid prosecution of “innocent” infringers.  The other subsections of 506 would still allow for punishment of individuals selling infringing materials for personal financial gain and individuals distributing unpublished material prior to commercial releases (i.e. leaking music albums, movies, or books).  With these two other options available, raising the threshold would not make prosecution any more difficult. 

      Finally, “willfully” needs to be defined in the statute in accordance with the majority view.  One action should not be more or less culpable depending on the circuit where it is committed.  By defining “willfully” in the statute, all circuits would be in conformity and there would be no discrepancies between courts. Furthermore, if the purpose of the criminal copyright infringement statute is to educate, prevent, and deter, the public needs to know what is and what is not criminal.  For that reason, the definition of “willfully” is necessary to educate and assist in deterring future criminal infringement.

[1]Maureen O’Conner, Sarah Palin’s New Book: Leaked Excerpts, Gawker, (Nov. 17, 2010, 1:50 PM), http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:TxlEfXyJDUMJ:gawker....

[2]NY Judge Orders Gawker To Pull Palin Book Pages, Associated Press, (Nov. 20, 2010), http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5giNUABDpwRGZATlokAAN5D....


[4]Sarah Wheaton, Gawker Ordered to Remove Palin Book Excerpts, N.Y. Times, Nov. 20, 2010, 10:45 PM, http://mediadecoder.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/20/gawker-ordered-to-remov....

[5]Jeremy E. Peters & Julie Bosman, Palin’s Publisher and Gawker Settle Case, N.Y. Times, November 24, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/25/business/media/25gawker.html?src=busln.

[6]See generally Pareene, Palin: Scared of Asians?, Gawker, (Dec. 4, 2009, 1:39 PM), http://gawker.com/5419113/palin-scared-of-asians; Foster Kamer, Are Sarah and Todd Palin Getting A Divorce?, Gawker, (Aug. 1, 2009), http://gawker.com/5327957/are-sarah-and-todd-palin-getting-a-divorce; John Cook, Please Turn the Governor of Alaska’s Family Into A Television Program. Thank You., Gawker, (Mar. 12, 2009, 11:13 AM), http://gawker.com/5168742/please-turn-the-governor-of-alaskas-family-int....

[7]See generally Diane L. Kilpatrick-Lee, Criminal Copyright Law: Preventing A Clear Danger To The U.S. Economy Or Clearly Preventing The Original Purpose Of Copyright Law?, 14 U. Balt. Intell. Prop. L.J. 87 (2005); Anthony Falzone, Diddy Could Save Sampling, Slate, (Nov. 2, 2007, 7:16 AM), http://www.slate.com/toolbar.aspx?action=print&id=2177238.

[8]17 U.S.C. § 506 (2008).


[10]17 U.S.C. § 107 (1992).

[11]See generally Ting Ting Wu, The New Criminal Copyright Sanctions: A Toothless Tiger?, 39 IDEA 527 (1999).

[12]18 U.S.C. § 2319 (2008).

[13]17 U.S.C. § 506(a)(1)-(2) (2008).


[15]See Daniel Newman, Mangmang Cai & Rebecca Heugstenberg, Intellectual Property Crimes, 44 Am. Crim. L. Rev. 693, 717 (2007).

[16]See id. at 718.

[17]§ 506(a)(3).

[18]See Brian P. Heneghan, The Net Act, Fair Use, and Willfulness – Is Congress Making A Scarecrow of the Law?, 1 J. High Tech. L. 27, 34 (2002).  Judge Learned Hand stated that willfulness is “an awful word!  It is one of the most troublesome words that I know.  If I were to have the index purged, ‘willful’ [sic] would lead the rest in spite of its being at the end of the alphabet.” Id. at n64.

[19]757 F. Supp. 1046 (1991).

[20]Id. at 1047.

[21]Id. at 1047-48.

[22]Id. at 1048.



[25]498 U.S. 192 (1991).

[26]Id. at 194.

[27]Id. at 195-97.

[28]Id. at 199-200.

[29]Id. at 200.

[30]Id. at 201.

[31]United States v. Moran, 757 F. Supp. 1046, 1049 (1991).


[33]Id. at 1052.

[34]Kilpatrick-Lee, supra note 7, at 106.

[35]Newman, supra note 14, at 721.

[36]Heneghan, supra note 17, at 35-36.

[37]See infra Part III.

[38]17 U.S.C. § 107 (2007).


[40]Id. §§ 107(1)-(4).

[41]Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music Inc., 510 U.S. 569, 578 (1994).

[42]Campbell, 510 U.S. at 584.

[43]17 U.S.C. § 107(1) (2007).  See also Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. v. Nation Enters., 471 U.S. 539, 562 (1985) (“every commercial use of copyrighted material is presumptively an unfair exploitation of the monopoly privilege that belongs to the owner of the copyright”).

[44]See Sony Corp. of Am. v. Universal City Studios, 464 U.S. 417 (1984).

[45]Time shifting is the act of recording a TV show on a VHS tape for later private viewing.

[46]Id. at 442-43.

[47]430 F.3d 888 (7th Cir. 2005).

[48]Id. at 890.

[49]See generally Michael S. Sawyer, Copyright: Note: Filters, Fair use & Feedback: User-Generated Content Principles and the DMCA, 24 Berkeley Tech, L.J. 363 (2009); Edward Lee, Warming Up To User-Generated Content, 2008 U. Ill. L. Rev. 1459 (2008).

[50]See generally Jeremy Scott, “Leave Them Kids Alone” A Proposed Fair Use Defense For Noncommercial P2P Sharing of Copyrighted Music Files, 3 Fla. Int’l U. L. Rev. 235 (2007).

[51]See Eric Spiegelman, Sarah Palin and Gawker to Debate Freedom and the Constitution, The Awl, (Nov. 22, 2010), http://www.theawl.com/2010/11/sarah-palin-and-gawker-to-debate-freedom-a....

[52]Heneghan, supra note 17, at 36.

[53]17 U.S.C. § 506(a)(1)(B) (2008).

[54]Kilpatrick-Lee, supra note 7, at 117.

[55]18 U.S.C. § 2319(c)(2) (2008).

[56]Geraldine Scott Moohr, The Crime of Copyright Infringement: An Inquiry Based on Morality, Harm, and Criminal Theory, 83 B. U. L. Rev. 731, 748 (2003).

[57]Kilpatrick-Lee, supra note 7, at 118.

[58]The charges were dropped after holding the woman for two days.  SeeShanna Schwarze, ‘New Moon’ Taping May Put Woman In Prison, CNNEntertainment (Dec. 4, 2009, 6:28PM), http://www.cnn.com/2009/SHOWBIZ/Movies/12/04/new.moon.arrest/; Amanda Bell, Charges Against Accused ‘The Twilight Saga: New Moon’ ‘Pirate’ Dropped, examiner.com (Dec. 11, 2009, 4:36PM), http://www.examiner.com/twilight-in-national/charges-against-accused-the... Jacqueline D. Lipton, Coypright’s Twilight Zone: Digital Copyright Lessons From The Vampire Blogosphere, 70 Md. L. Rev. 1, 38-42 (2010).

[59]California’s Nonpartisan Fiscal and Policy Advisor, Legislative Analyst’s Office, California’s 2008-2009 Annual Costs to Incarcerate an Inmate in Prison(2009), http://www.lao.ca.gov/laoapp/laomenus/sections/crim_justice/6_cj_inmatec....

[60]See Heneghan, supra note 17, at 39-43.

[61]Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section, U.S. Dep’t of Just., Prosecuting Intellectual Property Crimes Manuel 67-68 (2001).

[62]See supra note 57.

© 2011 Charles F. Scott


About this Author

J.D. candidate 2011, Pace University School of Law. BFA, New York University, 2006.  Charles Scott has focused his legal studies in the areas of Intellectual Property and Entertainment and is an Articles Editor for the Pace Law Review.  He has worked extensively with major record labels and television networks prior to his legal education.  He is also co-owner of independent record label, Sinking Ship Records.