Copyright infringement disputes are usually resolved through direct negotiation, a notice and take down process, or litigation in civil court. Egregious or large-scale commercial infringement, especially when it involves counterfeiting, is sometimes prosecuted via the criminal justice system. Shifting public expectations, advances in digital technology, and the increasing reach of the Internet have led to such widespread, anonymous infringement that copyright-dependent industries now focus less on pursuing individuals who seek and share copyright-protected content online, and more on expanding copyright law to recognize and penalize – as "indirect" infringers – the service providers and software distributors which are said to facilitate and encourage individual acts of infringement by others.
Estimates of the actual economic impact of copyright infringement vary widely and depend on many factors. Nevertheless, copyright holders, industry representatives, and legislators have long characterized copyright infringement as "piracy" or "theft" – language which some U.S. courts now regard as pejorative or otherwise contentious.
The terms piracy and theft are often associated with copyright infringement. The original meaning of piracy is "robbery or illegal violence at sea", but the term has been in use for centuries as a synonym for acts of copyright infringement. Theft, meanwhile, emphasizes the potential commercial harm of infringement to copyright holders. However, copyright is a type of intellectual property, an area of law distinct from that which covers robbery or theft, offenses related only to tangible property. Not all copyright infringement results in commercial loss, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1985 that infringement does not easily equate with theft.
This was taken further in the case MPAA v. Hotfile, where Judge Kathleen M. Williams granted a motion to deny the MPAA the usage of words whose appearance was primarily "pejorative". This list included the word "piracy", the use of which, the motion by the defense stated, serves no court purpose but to misguide and inflame the jury.
The term "piracy" has been used to refer to the unauthorized copying, distribution and selling of works in copyright. The practice of labelling the infringement of exclusive rights in creative works as "piracy" predates statutory copyright law. Prior to the Statute of Anne in 1710, the Stationers' Company of London in 1557, received a Royal Charter giving the company a monopoly on publication and tasking it with enforcing the charter. Those who violated the charter were labelled pirates as early as 1603. Article 12 of the 1886 Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works uses the term "piracy" in relation to copyright infringement, stating "Pirated works may be seized on importation into those countries of the Union where the original work enjoys legal protection." Article 61 of the 1994 Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) requires criminal procedures and penalties in cases of "willful trademark counterfeiting or copyright piracy on a commercial scale." Piracy traditionally refers to acts of copyright infringement intentionally committed for financial gain, though more recently, copyright holders have described online copyright infringement, particularly in relation to peer-to-peer file sharing networks, as "piracy".