Is It Illegal To Share Files From Your Computer?

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The Ultimate DMCA Guide for Students

When you’re in school, it can feel like you’re insulated a bit from the outside world. It’s the high school or college that makes many of the rules you live by, and most of them are pretty easy to contend with. This doesn’t mean, though, that you may not at some point find yourself on the wrong side of a crossed line, and when that happens, the school may no longer be the buffer you’re accustomed to.

Specifically, if you, either intentionally or accidentally, break the law by engaging in copyright infringement, you may have to face some serious consequences, and your school will most likely not be able – or perhaps even willing – to come to your defense.

It may surprise you to know that many students find themselves in trouble over something that seems very simple and harmless – file sharing. According to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), sharing files you do not own is illegal, and can carry severe punishment if you’re caught.

What is the DMCA?

The easiest way to describe the DMCA is as an addendum to United State copyright law. It was written specifically to address copyright issues as they pertain to intellectual property found on and dispersed via the Internet.

The DMCA comes into play most often in two scenarios. First, when someone copies content that exists on a website, and publishes it on their own website. This is copyright infringement, and the DMCA provides guidance and recourse to address the situation.

The second instance where the DMCA is commonly at play is file sharing. Logging onto a file sharing or torrent site and downloading music, books, or any other copyrighted works without paying for them, is also copyright infringement, and is also remedied according to the DMCA.

In the instance of file sharing, provisions of the DMCA make it illegal both to upload (share) and download copyrighted material.

The DMCA also criminalizes methods of any kind created to bypass the technology that controls how copyrighted work is accessed. This technology is usually referred to as digital rights management (DRM).

What is DRM?

Referring to both the practice of levying copyright restrictions, and the technologies used to restrict access to copyrighted material, DRM’s purpose is to prevent users from copying that copyrighted material, whether it’s a song, a movie, an e-book, or any other electronic medium that conveys creative work. As a mechanism, DRM is basically a digital lock that prevents the copying of data.

For example, DRM on a compact disc will prevent the person who bought that disc from ripping the CD and saving the music to their computer. The thinking is that, once the CD is ripped, and the digital files are saved, they could then be distributed through file-sharing services. This would allow others to download the music without buying the CD, causing both the artist and the record label to lose out on potential revenue.

DRM is a controversial method of copyright protection, though, because these kinds of digital restrictions also prevent perfectly legal actions such as the CD’s purchaser backing up the CD they paid for, and libraries from lending CDs to library members. For this reason, some choose to refer to DRM as “digital restrictions management” rather than “digital rights management.”

Is it Illegal to Share Files From my Computer?

In a word, yes. To reiterate, the DMCA outlines criminal penalties for sharing and downloading files containing copyrighted material without having paid for that material.

How Will Anyone Know I’m File Sharing?

People who own copyrighted work often monitor the Internet for mentions or instances of their work. This is especially true for those who create work that is widely distributed, and from which they earn revenue. However, this doesn’t mean you’re being monitored directly. You may simply get caught up in a wider net.

For example, if a record label decides to go after a large file-sharing site that is known to allow the sharing of music files, then the initial issue between the record label and that site. As information is shared, though, identifying information of the site’s users may come to light.

A more likely, and more common, occurrence, though, is that you use one of the school’s computers, or your own computer, but on the school’s network, to download copyrighted material. When the copyright owner discovers their work has been infringed upon, they can take action. This will normally entail issuing a DMCA Notice.

What is a DMCA Notice?

When a copyright owner finds their work is being shared or used illegally, one of the benefits available to them through the DMCA is the ability to issue a DMCA notice. This notice will detail what information has been stolen, where it originated, where it’s been copied or downloaded, along with other identifying data. Copyright owners will rarely issue a DMCA notice directly to the party who has taken their work. They will instead issue the DMCA notice to the Internet Service Provider (ISP) of the person who has infringed their copyright.

An ISP is required by law to take action whenever they receive a DMCA notice, without exception. This action may include tracking the IP address that was used to illegally download a file. And this is where you may get into trouble.

Whether you used your own computer in your dorm room, or you used a desktop in the university computer lab, it’s not as difficult as you think to track the time and place a file was illegally downloaded or shared. Regardless of the fact that you may have used university property and university bandwidth for file-sharing, you alone will be held responsible for your actions. The school is under no obligation to provide you with any sort of protection.

What Will Happen if I’m Caught File Sharing?

Codes of conduct and general rules will vary from school to school. You may have to endure some sort of disciplinary action, which could be anything from a warning to expulsion, depending on the offense. Check your school’s policies on computer and Internet use, and file-sharing.

That’s just the school’s recourse, though. If the copyright holder decides to press charges against you for sharing or downloading their copyrighted material without permission or payment, you may end up in a situation where you need legal defense.

Protect Yourself

It could be that you have absolutely no interest in file-sharing or downloading copyrighted materials. You’re on the right track, so stick with it. However, other students may not be as conscientious as you are.

Never share your username or password with anyone. Period. Not your best friend, not your roommate. No one. Once that information leaves your hands, you can no longer guarantee it will be protected. You also can’t guarantee that it won’t fall into the wrong hands.

If someone uses your username and password to log into a computer, and then shares files or illegally downloads copyrighted material, you may still be held liable. Once those shared files are tracked down, and it is revealed that your username and password were used for illegal activity, you will have a very difficult time proving your innocence.

Also, remove any file-sharing software you may have on your computer. This will help prevent any mishaps. And if you’ve ever shared files, or downloaded files illegally, your best bet is to delete all those files now. Copyright infringement has become a serious – and for some, lucrative – issue. Keeping file-sharing software, or shared files on your computer is putting yourself at risk.

If you must listen to a favorite song, or see the latest movie release, you have other legal options available to you:

  • wait for them to come out, and then buy them
  • check CDs or DVDs out from the library
  • borrow a friend’s CDs or DVDs
  • buy used CDs and DVDs, and still own them, but for less money

Nothing is worth risking your academic career (or your scholarship, if you have one), especially not a few music files, or a pirated movie.

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