How do you know which computer files are legal to share?

downloading files
You can find almost anything you want on the Internet. But does that mean it's legal to download and share?

You can find almost anything you want on the Internet. Music, movies, images, software programs, video games, and even entire books can be located and downloaded with a simple search and a few clicks of the mouse. Better yet, that content is readily available for free through popular file sharing Web sites and software programs. But does that mean it's legal to download and share?

In most cases, the answer is no.


File sharing itself is perfectly legal. After all, if you've ever accessed a spreadsheet on your office network, worked on a shared document in Google Docs, or posted your vacation photos to an online album for your friends and family to enjoy, you've engaged in file sharing. So for the most part, it's not the technology that's the problem; it's the nature of the files themselves.

How can you tell if a file is legal or illegal to share? The short answer is that if it's something you would normally need to pay for in a store or online, it's probably illegal to get it or distribute it for free [source: Computer Hope]. When you bypass iTunes, Amazon, Netflix or HBO and instead, get your music, movies and premium television shows for free through a file sharing program, you deprive artists and copyright holders of royalty payments that they would normally earn. And by downloading, uploading or otherwise sharing copyrighted works, you violate copyright law, which gives copyright owners the exclusive right to reproduce and distribute their work [source: U.S. Copyright Office].

In almost all cases, files that you acquire for free through a bittorrent site or a peer-to-peer file sharing network have been illegally shared, and it is illegal for you to download or upload them [source: Computer Hope]. This may include MP3 files and other music files; movies and other video files; photographs; pirated books and e-books; pirated video games or software applications; and TV shows, particularly shows that have aired on premium channels and are not otherwise available for free.

So are there any files that are legal to share? Yes, under certain conditions. But it's best to proceed with caution. We'll explain more on the next page.


When is a file legal to share?

In certain situations, it is legal to download, upload or otherwise share files that you find on the Internet. If a work is in the public domain, it means that the copyright on that work has expired and the work may therefore be used and shared freely [source: U.S. Copyright Office]. If you create a work and you still hold the copyright for that material (i.e., you have not signed over the copyright to an employer or agency), you may of course choose to share it as you wish. And works created under a sharing license such as Creative Commons or the GNU General Public License can be shared legally under the conditions specified by the creator of the work. Under a Creative Commons license, for example, a photographer may allow any non-commercial use of his or her photography, or an author may give Web site owners blanket permission to reproduce his or her blog posts, as long as proper credit is given [source: Creative Commons].

Unfortunately, it's not always easy to tell whether a file meets the above criteria. Original works published under Creative Commons or other shared licensing standard will often include a description of how the material may or may not be used. But if another Web site reproduces the licensed work without giving the required credit, you may download it without realizing that the site where you found the file is not the original source. And while most works published in the United States before 1923 are now in the public domain, it can be difficult to determine whether the copyright has been renewed on later works. As a general rule, assume that any recent creation -- and certainly any current song, movie or TV series -- is still under copyright and is therefore not in the public domain.


Luckily, there are steps you can take to ensure that the content you find online is legal. The Internet Archive is a non-profit organization that maintains an Internet library of works in the public domain, including movies, texts, audio files and software programs. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) maintains a list of legal music sites like Pandora and Rhapsody that let you find and listen to copyrighted songs, and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) maintains a similar list of movie and video streaming services, such as Netflix and Hulu.

You can also go directly to the Web site of a musician or television network to see if the song or program you're looking for is available there. Copyright law still prevents you from sharing or redistributing the file without the copyright owner's express permission, but in many cases you will be able to stream or download the content legally -- and for free.

But let's say you can't find what you're looking for through any legal channels, or you don't want to pay for the music you download. What's the worst that can happen if you share an illegal file? Read on to find out.


What can happen if you share an illegal file?

Napster gift cards
File sharing sites like Napster, Kazaa and Megaupload violated copyright laws and eventually the sites were shut down.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In the days before the Internet, file sharing was pretty straightforward. Of course, it wasn't actually called file sharing back then. We called it borrowing a book, or renting a video, or -- if you wanted to get really high-tech -- recording a song onto a cassette tape. And if you forgot to return the borrowed book or take the video back to the store, the worst you would have had to deal with was an annoyed friend or a small late fee.

In the decade and a half since file sharing has gone digital, all that has changed. File sharing sites like Napster, Kazaa and Megaupload quickly caught the attention of the RIAA and MPAA, who blame illegal file sharing for hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue within the music and movie industries. Record companies and movie studios initially went after the file sharing sites themselves, and in many cases, they succeeded in either shutting down the Web sites altogether or forcing them to change their business practices [source: Electronic Frontier Foundation].


But in 2003, the record labels and film studios began to take a different approach: going after the people who download the files. From 2003 to 2008, the RIAA filed, settled or threatened legal action against least 30,000 individuals [source: Electronic Frontier Foundation]. As of May 2012, only two of those cases had actually gone to trial, but the damages awarded in those two cases may be enough to scare off any would-be file sharers [source: Sisario].

Under U.S. copyright law, anyone found to have "willfully infringed" a copyrighted work by illegally reproducing or distributing it may be held liable for as much as $150,000 for each work infringed [source: U.S. Copyright Office]. The juries in both Sony BMG v. Tenenbaum and RIAA v. Thomas-Rassett took that number to heart. Grad student Joel Tenenbaum was found liable for $675,000 in damages for downloading and sharing 30 songs, while single mother Jammie Thomas-Rassett was ordered to pay $1.5 million in damages for 24 songs she made available for sharing on Kazaa [sources: Pinto; Sisario]. Both cases are currently under appeal, but thousands of others have been settled out of court, with accused file sharers paying up to avoid legal fees or drawn-out court battles.

To find out more about legal and illegal file sharing, check out the links on the next page.


Author's Note

As I researched this article, I kept thinking about how much the music industry has changed in the past 25 years -- not only for artists and record companies, but for music fans and consumers. Back in the day, it was the ultimate compliment if a friend or new romantic interest made you a mix tape filled with new music they wanted you to hear. I can't even count how many new artists I learned about through these homemade compilations, or how many dollars I spent buying their albums because I loved the song or two I had just heard for the first time. Today, I'm more likely to discover new music through Pandora than anywhere else, and I have really conflicted feelings about the lawsuits over illegal file sharing. I still pay for any music I download, maybe because I've known a lot of talented and starving musicians, and I believe that illegal file sharing takes money from their pockets. But it's the recording companies -- not necessarily the artists themselves -- who profit most from huge legal settlements and jury awards. Meanwhile, the example-making damages sought and the never-ending court appeals tell me that when it comes to finding a balance between the rights of artists and the interests of music fans, our copyright laws haven't yet caught up with our technology. What will the next 25 years bring? It will be fascinating to find out.

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More Great Links


  • Computer Hope. "Is file sharing illegal or legal?" (Aug. 17, 2012)
  • Computer Hope. "Is watching TV for free on the Internet legal?" (Aug. 17, 2012)
  • Electronic Frontier Foundation. "How To Not Get Sued for File Sharing." July 1, 2006. (Aug. 17, 2012)
  • Electronic Frontier Foundation. "RIAA v. The People: Five Years Later." Sept. 30, 2008. (Aug. 17, 2012)
  • Epstein, Zach. "File-sharing site RapidShare deemed legal by court." March 28, 2012. (Aug. 17, 2012)
  • Flynn, Michael. "Legal Lad: File Sharing Law." Quick and Dirty Tips. Sept. 12, 2008. (Aug. 17, 2012)
  • Masnick, Mike. "Is Downloading and Converting a YouTube Video to an MP3 Infringement?" TechDirt. (Feb. 8, 2011) Aug. 17, 2012)
  • Motion Picture Association of America. "Get Movies & TV Shows." (Aug. 20, 2012)
  • Pinto, Nick. "Jammie Thomas-Rassett: The Download Martyr." CityPages. Feb. 16, 2011. (Aug. 20, 2012)
  • Recording Industry Association of America. "Legal Music Services." (Aug. 20, 2012)
  • Sandoval, Greg. "A file-sharing suit with my name on it?" June 2, 2010. (Aug. 17, 2012)
  • Sisario, Ben. "Supreme Court Passes on File-Sharing Case, but Still No End Is in Sight." New York Times. May 21, 2012. (Aug. 17, 2012)
  • U.S. Copyright Office. "Frequently Asked Questions about Copyright." (Aug. 15, 2012)