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The general rule is, of course, that ignorance of the law or mistake of the law is no defense to a criminal prosecution. However, when the term "willfully" is used in complex statutory schemes, such as federal criminal tax statutes, the term "willful" means a voluntary, intentional violation of a known legal duty.
Plaintiff government filed misdemeanor criminal charges against defendant Dennis Moran, the operator of a "mom-and-pop" video rental store, accusing the latter of violating federal copyright laws. Defendant contended that he made a copy of each copyrighted videotape and retained the original to safeguard it, and that he believed the practice was legal as long as he had purchased the "original" videotape. Defendant therefore argued that he lacked the specific intent to violate the law and should be found not guilty. Plaintiff contended that the term "willful" in the copyright statute, 17 U.S.C.S. § 506(a) meant intent to copy and not to infringe.
Under the circumstances, could the defendant be found guilty of violating 17 U.S.C.S. § 506(a), notwithstanding the fact that he lacked the specific intent to violate the law?
The court found defendant not guilty, holding that while ignorance of the law was no defense to criminal prosecution in complex statutory schemes, such as the copyright statute and federal criminal tax statutes, the term "willful" meant a voluntary, intentional violation of a known legal duty.