File Sharing and Copyright Laws

Is Downloading Copyrighted Material Against the Law?

  • If you are downloading music/movies or other copyrighted material using Peer-to-Peer (P2P) file sharing technology, you are potentially breaking the law.  Peer-to-Peer file sharing of copyrighted works without the permission of the copyright holder is called copyright infringement.

  • The Copyright Act grants copyright owners the exclusive rights of reproduction and distribution of their material.  When you download a copyrighted song, you are violating reproduction rights; when you share music files, you are violating distribution rights.

  • Civil Fines range from $750 to $150,000 for each infringed work, depending on the willfulness of the infringement.

  • The Recording Industry Association of America is aggressively suing individuals who illegally participate in illegal peer-to-peer file sharing on the Internet. Hundreds have been sued and many defendants are college students.

Civil and Criminal Penalties for Violation of Federal Copyright Laws

Copyright infringement is the act of exercising, without permission or legal authority, one or more of the exclusive rights granted to the copyright owner under section 106 of the Copyright Act (Title 17 of the United States Code). These rights include the right to reproduce or distribute a copyrighted work. In the file-sharing context, downloading or uploading substantial parts of a copyrighted work without authority constitutes an infringement.

Penalties for copyright infringement include civil and criminal penalties. In general, anyone found liable for civil copyright infringement may be ordered to pay either actual damages or “statutory” damages affixed at not less than $750 and not more than $30,000 per work infringed. For “willful” infringement, a court may award up to $150,000 per work infringed. A court can, in its discretion, also assess costs and attorneys’ fees. For details, see Title 17, United States Code, Sections 504, 505. Willful copyright infringement can also result in criminal penalties, including imprisonment of up to five years and fines of up to $250,000 per offense.

For more information, please see the website of the U.S. Copyright Office at

Legal Alternatives

  • iTunes provides you with the largest selection of legal music, video, and audio books to purchase and download to your computer.
  • Amazon also has a store that provides legal copies of digital books and music.
  • Consider using sites like or to watch movies and TV episodes.

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