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Hi Franklin. Dimitry is right on with his analysis. If I may amplify: copyright infringement can be prosecuted as a federal crime. That means the United States justice Department must decide to devote resources to prosecutions. While someone may have made the blanket assertion that it is a crime and it is punishable, remember that federal prosecutors do not prosecute every possible federal crime. While some small town DA's (often elected) may try to get votes by having a reputation for zero tolerance, this type of prosecutor can simply not prosecute copyright infringement -- only a United States Attorney can do that.
A review of case law would show that criminal prosecutions tend to be very rare. Federal prosecution of copyright actions tends to occur when there is large scale piracy of works (for instance, for distribution on the internet or to black market sellers). You'd be hard pressed to identify more than a handful of cases of the type you describe.
Sure, the lawyer who scared you is technically correct -- BUT ONLY HYPOTHETICALLY.
The gateway to such prosecution is financial gain -- not mere plagiarism (which is a violation of the Copyright Act, but not prosecuted). If there's no gain, then's there's not likely to be any case brought. Moreover, the value and extent of the copyright infringement is a key component under the Dept. of Justice's own prosecution guidelines. You can read an excerpt at this google book link:http://books.google.com/books?id=2jYMSOYQIkwC&pg=SA3-PA31&lpg=SA3-PA31&dq=justice +department+handbook+on+copyright+prosecution&source=bl&ots=5caMaNlm3-&sig=CxnYDjZzSBvCQKVnpRi3lNsZDuU&hl=en&sa=X&ei=QHTPUZKdCdKx0AGSk4CIDA&ved=0CD8Q6AEwAg
In sum: without profit, and when the copying is insubstantial, then it is very unlikely (although not impossible) for a US Attorney or other federal prosecutor to bring a criminal case. They have limited resources and don't really score political points, like elected DAs might, for zero tolerance policies
. They have to balance resources and deterrence, with the law, and tend to focus on money-making big time operations rather than small errors of judgment (what you might even call garden-variety plagiarism -- illegal though it may be).
Please let us know if you need any additional information.