The protection of intellectual property is critically important for many businesses, particularly in the electronics and technology industries. Computer and software companies rely extensively on copyright, trademark, and patent protections. Most acts of alleged copyright infringement result in civil claims, but federal criminal law allows prosecution in some situations. An individual often described as a “e-waste recycler” is facing a prison sentence for acts that he stated were intended to help extend the lives of personal computers, but which a major software company considered infringement. Prosecutors indicted him on 21 counts in 2016. United States v. Lundgren, No. 16-cr-80090, superseding indictment (S.D. Fla., Feb. 2, 2017). Last year, he pleaded guilty to two counts, criminal copyright infringement and conspiracy to traffic in counterfeit goods. An appeals court has now affirmed the district judge’s sentence of 15 months’ imprisonment and a $50,000 fine. United States v. Lundgren, No. 17-12466, slip op. (11th Cir., Apr. 11, 2018).
Copyright infringement involves the use of copyrighted material without a license from the copyright owner. It becomes a criminal offense when a person infringes a copyright “willfully,” and “for purposes of commercial advantage or private financial gain.” 17 U.S.C. § 506(a)(1)(A). The penalty for criminal copyright infringement depends in part on the number of copies made of any infringed works and their total value. If a defendant is found to have produced or distributed 10 or more copies, “including by electronic means,” they could face up to five years in prison and a fine. 18 U.S.C. § 2319(b)(1).
The defendant in Lundgren operated a business that refurbished discarded electronic devices, such as cell phones, for resale. His legal problems began when he attempted to take on the issue of “planned obsolescence.” This is a practice by many designers and manufacturers to set a limit on the useful life of a product or device, requiring consumers to purchase a new one. Light bulbs offer one example. While they reportedly could last much longer, light bulb manufacturers design them with a limited life span. Computers and cell phones become effectively unusable as newer software and hardware enter the market.