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File Sharing - Is it Legal? Where is the Boundary Crossed?

written by: •edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 5/18/2011

File sharing is legal - depending on who owns the copyright on the file being shared. This article attempts to explain the situation, as well as explaining some of the different types of file sharing methods and networks.

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    The Legal Complications of File Sharing

    Is file sharing legal or illegal? Do you get time in prison or a huge fine for sharing content you’ve bought or downloaded from the Internet, or is it all right to make your MP3s available to people around the globe?

    The answer, sadly, is far from simple.

    By making an MP3 music track or AVI video available on your PC for download and viewing by remote users, you then run the risk of breaching copyright. Various territories around the world have different laws, but generally speaking if you don’t own the copyright on the digital file you’re sharing, then you don’t have any right to share it.

    Exceptions to the rule exist, however. Some websites and file sharing networks are dedicated to sharing copyrighted material that has been made available by its creators for the express purpose of being disseminated to as wide an audience as possible. This tactic is being used increasingly by unsigned bands and looks set to continue.

    The implications of file sharing illegally can be severe. However there is an element of file sharing and intellectual copyright that should be explained before proceeding.

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    Is File Sharing Legal?

    By understanding the basics surrounding file sharing and copyright, you can easily make a judgment as to what is legal and what is illegal.

    Is file sharin legal? Copying this Bon Jovi album and then sharing it is considered theft. 

    We’ll ignore the Internet for the time being – this is merely a form of communication to transmit your files – and stick with this example.

    I have two MP3 files. One is the song “Living on a Prayer" by Bon Jovi, released in 1987. The other is “I See Her Walking" by Atomic Karma, written and recorded in 1998.

    If I burn these two songs onto a CD and listen to it on my own personal CD player, fair use covers me– I’m neither a massive downloader of MP3s, I’m not ripping all of my CDs and making them available for anyone else– as I’m the only one listening. I purchased the Bon Jovi song for my own enjoyment, and can listen to it as I please in my home, car, and on my personal CD player.

    However, if I then lend this disc to a friend, I am technically breaching the copyright of Bon Jovi.

    Atomic Karma’s copyright is not breached– I wrote and performed on the track.

    If you can see the distinction– two digital files, one created by you and one created by someone else– then you should see that the situation is clear. Sharing files which you have created is perfectly legal.

    Sharing files created by someone else – without their permission – is illegal.

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    Types of File Sharing

    uTorrent is a popular bittorrent file sharing client 

    Broadly speaking, there are two types of file sharing:

    • Direct sharing to an individual, possibly via MSN messenger or email (known as friend to friend)

    • Network sharing, either via P2P networks or online file hosting repositories

    There are many file sharing networks and they have grown in popularity since the growth of Napster in the 1990s. Network sharing remains a popular way of making files available for download by anonymous users.

    Currently, the most commonly used method of sharing files is via the peer to peer (P2P) networks- notable file sharing is now conducted via the bittorrent system, which allows many users to share the same file, with their computers acting as a server and client to share various parts of the file until a whole file is created. P2P networks by design don’t have a central server hosting material, thereby putting the responsibility of what is shared by the users of P2P software.

    Other places where file sharing takes place on a largely illegal basis are the IRC chat network and Usenet, the once popular home of the Internet newsgroups.

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    Who Will Stop Me?

    Illegal file sharing has become a massive topic since the closure of the original Napster in 2000. Technically Napster wasn’t breaching copyright– instead it made available lists of files available for download on other computers in much the same way as eDonkey, Gnutella and BitTorrent sites do.

    However with millions of copyrighted files being shared on a daily basis, pressure groups backed by the entertainment industry are pushing governments around the world into action, claiming loss of earnings and revenue against people making the files available for sharing, as well as giving increasing attention to regular downloaders.

    If you are keen to enjoy new music acquired via file sharing, you can push the boundaries of musical discovery by searching for files that are legally available for sharing - many up and coming bands are looking for exposure and by sharing their MP3 files on a P2P network you get the chance to enjoy their music and promote them!