Pros & Cons of Online File Sharing & Piracy
By Laurel Storm
If you listen to the wrong kind of people, online file sharing and piracy are perfectly normal. Mention the latest game, CD or movie you bought, and you might hear in response, "Ah man, why waste money like that? Just download it off the Internet for free. Everybody does it." Just because everybody does it, however, doesn't make it right -- or legal. While not all file sharing is against the law, knowing where the boundaries lie will help you take advantage of its many benefits while avoiding the downsides.
File sharing is not illegal. However, using file sharing to upload or download copyrighted material without the permission of the copyright owner, an act colloquially known as piracy, is illegal. It counts as copyright infringement, which is illegal in the United States and most other countries in the world, either due to domestic copyright laws or adherence to international conventions such as the WIPO Copyright Treaty. Ignorance of either the law or of the fact that the files you downloaded were made available without permission is not a valid defense, either -- the onus is on you to ensure you do not breach copyright.
Consequences of Copyright Infringement
According to U.S. law, people who violate copyright laws can be liable for damages ranging from $30,000 to $150,000 for each act, and they can be subject to jail time in the case of criminal infringement. Even if you are not fined or prosecuted for the infringement, there may still be consequences. If you downloaded copyrighted material using Internet access provided by your place of study or employment, you may be expelled or fired as a result.
Spyware and Malware
Downloading files through peer-to-peer programs or from insecure websites may cause your computer to become infected with spyware, viruses or other malware. This malicious software may cause you to lose control of your computer, it may wipe out some folders or your entire hard drive, or it may prove difficult and time-consuming to get rid of.
Public Domain Material
File sharing is not all bad. Material in the public domain may be freely shared online without fear of legal repercussions, allowing useful information to be more easily disseminated. For example, websites such as Project Gutenberg or the Internet Archive offer millions of texts, videos and audio in digital format, free to download for any non-commercial use.
File Sharing as Promotion
Copyright owners may choose to make some or all of their works available for free online through file sharing to promote them and increase their audience. Science fiction author Cory Doctorow, who offers all his works online for free, states that most people who download his free e-books wouldn't have purchased any version of them to begin with -- but for some, the free e-books are an enticement to buy the printed version and recommend them to their friends, gaining him sales that otherwise wouldn't have existed.
- Cornell University Legal Information Institute: 18 USC § 2319 -- Criminal Infringement of a Copyright
- U.S. Copyright Office: Copyright and Digital Files
- Stanford University: Summaries of Fair Use Cases
- University of Wisconsin-Madison: Understanding File Sharing
- Recording Industry Association of America: The Law
- Forbes: Giving It Away
Laurel Storm has been writing since 2001, and helping people with technology for far longer than that. Some of her articles have been published in "Messaggero dei Ragazzi", an Italian magazine for teenagers. She holds a Master of Arts in writing for television and new media from the University of Turin.