How to avoid getting a copyright violation complaint

Surveys of young adults show that they generally understand that sharing copyrighted music (or TV, movies, books, software) without permission is at least a technical violation of the law. Interesting things can be said about (1) is this stealing (2) record companies are robber barons (3) fair use (4) sharing exposure promotes artists which helps sales and (5) just sampling to see if you like it. They will not be said here.

Nothing said here should be relied on as legal advice. If you need legal advice, you should contact a lawyer. University policy is clear: Users may not use University networks or computers to violate intellectual property rights.

  • What is actually illegal: Uploading or Downloading?
    Probably both, since both are copying and users don't have permission to make copies. But as a practical matter, the RIAA and MPAA focus on Uploading (sharing with others). And as a technical matter it is much easier for them to find Uploading than Downloading.
  • How do people get caught?
    Copyright owners hire companies that specialize in finding materials. They join the Internet with automated clients -- some would call them bots -- that hunt the net looking for titles. The focus is on popular material, but any copyright owner can purchase services to check up on their property. We have never seen a copyright complaint about Hungarian folksongs.
  • If I use a chat program like IRC to send a song to someone, is that Uploading or Downloading?
    It is copying without permission, and therefore illegal. The name doesn't matter. Surveillance by copyright owners of file sharing networks cannot see this kind of transaction. If you met someone on-line and she asked you to send a song, and if that person was under cover working for the record industry, you would be nailed.
  • Can I rip my CDs?
    Permission to make a personal copy relies on the license you purchased when you bought the CD. If you sell the CD after you rip it, you no longer have the license.
  • How about not sharing?
    Not sharing is a good strategy to avoid copyright problems, but only if you are sure you're really not sharing. File sharing as a phenomena would not work well if there were no Uploaders to provide materials for the Downloaders. File sharing programs compete with each other for your attention. They are selling advertising. They need to be popular. They get popularity by having content. One thing they do is make it easy to share and hard to not share. The program might, for example, continue to run (and share) even when it is not visible on your screen. And many of the programs are written to reward members of their community that give back (share) by arranging for faster downloads. If you don't share, you get poor performance.

    A problem with a not sharing strategy is that many programs Download into the Upload directory. Everything you pull down becomes immediately available for Uploading. And immediately means immediately. During the download process, your computer may start sharing parts of the files as the download progresses. You are then downloading and sharing (uploading) at the same time. So even if you move all your booty out of the download directory as soon as it's complete, you were offering uploads long enough to get found.
  • But I paid for my file sharing program
    A commercial copy of LimeWire PRO is available for $34.95. It may give you some advantages relative to the free version, but the terms and conditions make it clear (should you actually read them) that you can only share materials where you have permission. Failure to read the fine print would not get you off the hook for a copyright violation.
  • Private file sharing?
    A dark net runs on limited scope inside a campus network. Reconnaissance on campus internal networks is certainly an extra challenge for the copyright services companies. In 2003 some students publicized private file sharing on their campus networks. Perhaps the publicity of an in-your-face challenge was too much for the RIAA to ignor. This is the sole example of private file sharing that has led to a settlement where users paid money to copyright owners.
  • Theory: First one's free
    This theory holds that every student is entitled to a warning before there are serious penalties. "The first time I get caught, I'll stop." Similar theories for unprotected sex have been largely discredited. In the case of copyright, a more accurate theory is "first one is $4000." As legal things go, that really isn't very much money. Last year, copyright owners sent twenty takedown request warnings for every letter demanding payment. But some users got the $4000 surprise as their first communication.
  • Theory: It was an accident
    $4000 is not a fine for a criminal violation. It is a settlement of a claim for damages. Criminal intent is not required. If you damage a record company by taking their stuff, they can sue you whether or not it was on purpose.
  • Which sharing programs cause trouble for users?
    We do not have an exhaustive list because there are so many. There are lots of different file sharing networks (BitTorrent, WinMX, DirectConnect, Gnutella, etc) and then for each of them, there are many programs that permit users to join that network. There is a list at What color car will minimize your chances of getting a speed ticket? It is probably easier to answer that question than Which P2P program is least likely to be seen?