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Civil Penalties

Copyright holders and private individuals can sue for civil penalties in infringement and defamation actions.

While posting your art online is generally not a legally risky thing to do, the risks artists are most likely to face are civil penalties, which can include fines and orders from the court to take down your work. Two common areas of law presenting the risk of art-related lawsuits are copyright and defamation.  The possibility of criminal penalties, including prison sentences, are discussed in this section.

Copyright Infringement

If a person holds a copyright in a work, she can file a lawsuit against anyone who she believes is infringing that right.  Because the Copyright Act gives rightsholders a number of rights in their work (including the rights to distribute it, make copies, and create derivative works), “copyright infringement” can cover a wide range of activities.  It’s important for to understand what activities might expose you to liability, especially for artists who sample or otherwise incorporate other people’s work into their art.  The Sampling and Appropriation section discusses some of the potential issues related to copyright infringement.

Defamation/Libel

Defamation is a seemingly factual but false statement about a person that reflects negatively on his character or reputation.  Defamation law varies among the states, and there are a number of Supreme Court cases that set the boundaries of this type of law.  Artists whose work involves the image or likeness of other people or makes a comment on them need to be aware of the potential for a defamation lawsuit.  Defamation is discussed in the Depictions of Real People section.