Copyright FAQ


Is Filesharing Illegal?

It Depends.

File sharing applications are just technologies that enable the sharing of computer files. However, people can use file sharing applications in ways that are both legal and illegal.

Peer to Peer Basics

Also known as P2P, these file sharing applications allow your computer to connect to a peer-to-peer network. Once connected, you can share files with other users on the network.

There are many types of files available on a P2P network, such as music, movies, software, etc. Downloading and using copyrighted files without permission is know as piracy and is illegal.

Copyright Laws

Whenever someone creates something that is original and expressive and fixes that expression in a way that lets you read, see, hear, or perceive it, federal law gives the creator a copyright in that work. For example, if a musician writes or records a song, the law grants the creator a copyright as soon as it is fixed on paper or recorded.

The length of a copyright is the creator's lifetime plus 70 years. During this time, he or she is the only person authorized to do any of the following with that work:

  • Make copies of it
  • Distribute it publicly
  • Make derivative works or adaptations based on it
  • Perform/Display it publicly
  • For sound recordings, perform it publicly through digital audio transmission
  • Give someone else permission to do any of the above

Copyright attaches to a work from the moment the work is fixed. It doesn't matter whether or not the copyright holder registers their work with the federal Copyright Office or puts any kind of notice or symbol on those works to show that they are protected by copyright. For that reason you should assume that any music, movies, or software shared on file sharing networks have copyrights, unless you clearly know otherwise.

Downloading a file involves making a copy of it to your computer. Sharing files over a peer-to-peer network involves distributing and performing them publicly, because anyone using the application has access to it.

If you do not have the permission of the copyright holder, and you download and/or distribute their copyrighted material, then you are violating the copyright holder's rights and the law. This is known as copyright infringement.

There is currently no exception in copyright law that allows you to download or distribute whole works without the copyright holder's permission. Copyright law does allow some limited uses of others copyrighted works without the copyright holder's permission. This is called Fair Use.

Why Does Copyright Law Grant Exclusive Rights?

It is important to understand the purpose of the copyright law and why the law grants copyright holders exclusive rights to their works for a period of time. Copyright law is intended to strike a balance. On one hand, it gives creators substantial control over the use of their works, so that they have an economic incentive to keep creating them. This benefits society by encouraging the creation of expressive works, which may contain facts and ideas (elements that are not protected by copyright) that people can use freely to expand knowledge within society.

On the other hand, copyright law limits the term of copyright and grants some rights to use works without the copyright holder's permission. This further promotes the flow of information and creativity in society.

Some people may not care about making money from their works and are happy to donate them to the public domain however, most expect to be compensated for using their time, talent, and creative energy. Even if music labels take a sizable amount of the money from sales of a musicians work, the musician will still make less money if sales are lost to illegal file sharing. Moreover, the labels use money from music sales to promote and support new or less popular musicians, labels may be less willing to do so if funds from music sales decrease due to illegal file sharing.

What are the Penalties?

People who infringe copyrights can be sued by the copyright holders for substantial amounts of money. In addition, anyone who willfully infringes a copyright may be prosecuted and face jail time. There are also the costs of having to hire a lawyer and go to court to defend against an infringement claim.

Some people believe that if they just share files with others, and don't charge for the files or otherwise make any money from file sharing, that the law doesn't apply. THIS IS WRONG. Copyright holders can still sue you for money damages. The No Electronic Theft (NET) Act makes it a crime to reproduce, distribute, or share, electronically or otherwise, copyrighted works such as songs, movies, games, or software programs, even if the person copying or distributing the material acts without any commercial purpose.

Copyright law, including the NET Act, applies to situations such as running a file sharing application with outgoing transfers enabled, hosting files on a Web account, transferring files through Internet Relay Chat (IRC), and other methods of making copyrighted material available over networks.

How did the University Get Involved?

Copyright holders and trade associations representing them, like the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), and Business Software Alliance (BSA), spend a great deal of time and money scanning Internet traffic to identify the transfer of files containing copyrighted material. When they determine the IP address involved in the transfers, they generally send a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) take-down notice to the user's Internet service provider.

For purposes of the DMCA, ETBU is regarded as an Online Service Provider (OSP) for users of the ETBU institutional technology infrastructure. ETBU receives these DMCA notices from copyright holders. The DMCA recognizes that OSPs like ETBU generally should not be held liable for infringement by their users. This protection is removed if OSPs learn of alleged infringement and do nothing about it.

In order for ETBU not to be held liable for illegal activity by our network users, we follow the provisions established within the DMCA. When ETBU receives a notice alleging that the user has infringed a copyright, we must act expeditiously to remove, or disable access to, the infringing material. To comply with this requirement, ETBU will notify the user to remove all illegal files immediately. If they do not comply, the user's network access is disabled until such time as they are in compliance.

Can Rights Holders sue me?

Yes. It is just more difficult and time consuming for them than it used to be but they can, and do, find out.

In the past, The Digital Millennium Copyright Act allowed copyright holders to issue subpoenas to Online Service Providers (OSP) seeking the identity of alleged infringers without a judge's consent. This was contested by Verizon in the case RIAA v. Verizon, and as a result copyright holders must first file a "John Doe" lawsuit against an infringer. The OSP is still required to supply the information expeditiously, and if ETBU receives a valid subpoena concerning your file sharing activity, we will be compelled to turn over your identity.

What if I think the law is wrong?

For nearly a decade the legal debate over P2P networks has increased. Many in the music industry argue that illegally shared music decreases retail sales and that this hurts artists. Other artists disagree and promote the sharing of their works. Some consumers claim that CDs are too expensive and music is not available in desired formats. The motion picture industry and software publishers have also joined the debate, seeking more vigorous enforcement of copyright law. At the same time, consumer rights groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation have voiced strong concerns about some of the methods proposed to deal with copyright infringement.

The debate is also occurring in Congress, where legislation related to copyright infringement on the Internet is frequently introduced. Much of the legislation proposed aims at strengthening copyright holders rights and protections. Some people feel that the changes being proposed are too extreme, while others feel they are necessary to stem a tide of copyright infringement.

Everyone has their own opinions and concerns, and it is not possible to determine the outcome of this heated debate. You have the right to criticize the current law, petition your local government representatives for more consumer-friendly copyright laws, and boycott the recording industry. BUT as of today, you DO NOT have the right to download or share whole copies of copyrighted material for entertainment without the copyright owners permission. If you do so, you may face serious penalties under the law.

Can I use someones copyrighted material?

Copyright law does allow for people to use copyrighted works without the copyright holders permission, in certain cases where the use is limited and serves an important public purpose. The law allows for the fair use of a copyrighted work for such purposes as teaching, scholarship, research, criticism, comment, and news reporting. Whether or not a particular use is fair depends on the consideration of four factors: The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for non-profit educational purposes The nature of the copyrighted work The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole and The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work. Being associated with an education institution doesn't automatically make use of copyrighted material "fair use". Downloading copyrighted material for your personal use without permissions from the owner is illegal.

I didn't know it was illegal

It is your responsibility to be aware of and comply with the law.

How do I avoid copyright infringement in file sharing?

  • Make sure that your computer is set to not share files. However, if you do, make sure that you share only files that you have permission to share.
  • Before you download a file, make sure it is legal for you to do so. You can often check the Web sites of copyright holders to verify if they allow distribution of their materials.
  • When you purchase music, movies, games, etc., read the license carefully to learn if you have permission to convert the material to other formats for your own use, and whether or not you can share the material with others.

Some content adapted from IU.edu © 2009