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Copyright infringement is the violation of copyright law for profit or to avoid payment for copyrighted work license.
Most commonly, copyright infringement refers to the large-scale theft of digital media such as music, film, and computer programs. Specialty Internet sites cater to those who would deprive the copyright owners of their due payments.
While copyright infringement is theft in such cases, it is perhaps easier to rationalize, since copies of these materials are easily and freely made (unlike the theft of say, a car), and thus the immediate negative effects are not apparent. However, in a world where everybody has free access to the work of others without payment, the incentive to produce digital media disappears, and less music, fewer movies and fewer computer programs are produced, which benefits nobody.
While copyright infringement has existed ever since the first intellectual property laws, the kind of large-scale piracy of copyrighted works began in the 1980s with the cassette tape recorder and the ability to record songs off the radio. The low quality of this kind of media duplication prevented this practice from becoming too widespread, and the low-quality recordings cold not compete with high-quality studio recordings.
It was not until the creation of the website Napster.com in 1999 that large-scale copyright infringement became a threat to the media industry. Napster.com allowed users to share their digital music collections for free download by other users. Since there was no quality lost in the transfer, this kind of copyright infringement caught on and became widespread.
While Napster.com was eventually shut down in 2001, the authorities found that a number of similar sites were being created every year, and as of 2009 there are many websites which offer free downloads of copyrighted media and software.
The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) estimates $12.5 billion is lost every year due to the illegal downloading of music. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) estimates that $6.1 billion is lost every year do to the illegal downloading of movies. Estimates for the losses suffered by software manufacturers (such as Microsoft) are difficult to come by, but certainly measure in the billions of dollars a year.