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Copyright Infringement: A Strict Liability Cause of Action

Copyright infringement is essentially a strict liability cause of action.  In other words, the mental state of the copier generally does not matter on the issue of whether an illegal infringement has occurred.  Under the Copyright Act, the threshold question is whether a copyright defendant has made copies, distributed copies, prepared derivative works, publicly performed, or publicly displayed the work at issue.  Anyone who "violates any of the exclusive rights of the copyright owner . . . is an infringer of the copyright," regardless of mental state.  Unless the fair use doctrine is raised by the defendant, or the defendant is accused of contributory infringement and charged with knowledge of another's direct infringement, the Copyright Act makes no inquiry into the purpose of the copying or the mental state of the copier in determining liability.  Defendant's  willfulness, or lack thereof, in committing the infringement may enhance or limit the remedies for copyright infringement, but such a mental state will generally not matter on the question of whether an actionable copyright infringement has occurrred in the first place.
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