File Sharing FAQs

Below is a list of frequently asked questions about online piracy, copyright infringement, and legal alternatives to illegal file sharing:

What is online piracy?
Simply put, online piracy is the uploading, downloading, or swapping/sharing of copyrighted files without the copyright holder’s permission. These files may be songs, movies, television shows, videos, or any other type of digital material. Those who are caught engaging in online piracy can be charged with and possibly convicted of copyright infringement, a felony.

What is file sharing?
File sharing is the act of uploading files to the Internet or smaller networks so that they can be downloaded and played. File sharing depends on the use of file sharing programs, which are not in and of themselves illegal; however, using file sharing programs to bypass legal acquisition of and access to copyrighted materials is illegal. If copyright owners do not make their music or movies available to you for free downloading as part of a promotion, for example, or do not give you explicit permission to copy, distribute, and use their copyrighted music or movies, and/or you do not buy or pay a fee to download, copy, distribute, and use the music or movie, chances are good that you’re breaking the law.

Refer to the Project NEThics file sharing page for more information.

What is a peer-to-peer (P2P) network?
The United States Copyright Office defines peer-to-peer networks as networks where computers are linked to one another directly rather than through a central server. Such networks allow users to exchange files with one another directly via the Internet – without the need for a mediating server.

Too often, peer-to-peer networks (such as BitTorrent) are abused; especially when it comes to swapping copyrighted material (like songs and films) for free. When tempted to use one of these networks to swap files for free, recall the old adage “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” In other words, if the music’s free, there’s a strong chance it is illegal to download it and share it with others. Visit www.nethics.umd.edu for more information about P2P networks.

Is file sharing ever legal?
If you hold the copyright for a particular file, it is your right to share that file how you see fit. For example, if you write and/or produce an original song and choose to make it available to anyone for free over the Internet, it is perfectly legal for you to do so. However, when you distribute copyrighted works of others who have not given you permission to reproduce, download, and distribute their works that’s copyright infringement.

How can I uninstall P2P file sharing software on my computer?
Project NEThics refers students to a University of Delaware website that explains how to disable file sharing in popular programs: www.udel.edu/it/removing-p2p-software.html.

Is it illegal to download music?
No, it’s not illegal to download music (or television shows, movies, software programs, or video games, for that matter) – as long as you have been given permission to do so by the copyright holder. One easy way to obtain permission is to use a legal downloading service, such as iTunes or Amazon. However, if you acquire your music through a peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing network that offers “free” music (such as BitTorrent) you could be putting yourself at serious risk. Your best bet is to steer clear of sites that allow you to swap songs, television shows, video games, or films with your friends or peers for free.

Are there benefits to using legal services to download media files?
Yes, getting your media from legal sources offers several benefits:

  • There is no violation of copyright infringement, so no risk of being fined or incarcerated.
  • A variety of the latest and most popular music is available from legal paid websites, so you can get high-quality recordings from reliable sources.
  • You don't have to worry about downloading viruses and malware when you download from legal sites.
  • The prices on legal sites are relatively inexpensive, outweighing the hefty costs you could take on if you're sued for illegal downloading.

Does the university offer free access to any legal music downloading services?
Yes, the university offers iTunes U, a legal alternative that offers millions of songs as well as television shows and movies. Other legal options are listed at www.educause.edu/legalcontent.

Would sharing materials that I’ve purchased be considered a fair use under the Fair Use Doctrine?
Most likely, it wouldn’t. The copyright law that defines Fair Use says that

“the fair use of a copyrighted work…for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.”

Uploading and downloading materials to increase your personal multimedia library or for other non-academic uses does not fall under the protection of Fair Use. The copyright.gov website offers a Fair Use fact sheet for reference.

How do I know if a song is copyrighted?
As soon as a creative work is written down or put into some tangible form – whether it is a poem, a story, a computer file, or, in this case, a song – it is considered copyrighted and the property of whoever created it, according to U.S. copyright law. This is still true even if the author has not sold the work to a distributor. A good rule of thumb is to never download a song without paying for it unless it is offered as a promotion through a reputable vendor on an official site. The same is true of television shows and movies. Visit www.copyright.gov for more information.

What kind of punishment will I face if I am convicted of online piracy/copyright infringement?
According to the U.S. Copyright Office, you could be fined between $750 and $150,000 for each instance of copyright infringement you’re convicted of.

Often, those who are accused of copyright infringement via illegal file sharing are offered the opportunity to settle their cases before official lawsuits are filed. Students here at Maryland who have settled with the RIAA have told Project NEThics that they had to pay between $3,000 and $4,000.

What kind of university disciplinary actions could I face if I'm caught participating in online piracy?
A student who is the subject of a Digital Millenium Copyright Act complaint for the first time is warned of his or her conduct violation via email by the staff of Project NEThics.

It is the policy of Project NEThics to refer repeat offenses to the Department of Resident Life Office of Rights and Responsibilities or the Office of Student Conduct to be adjudicated through the university's judicial process.

For students in university housing, The Department of Resident Life Community Handbook makes clear that "once you activate a data jack in your room you are responsible for all activity on your data jack." This means that if online piracy is associated with your data jack, you will be held responsible.

Sanctions for violations of disciplinary regulations that may be imposed as a result of a judicial process include (see the Code of Student Conduct): disciplinary reprimand, disciplinary probationary periods, and dismissal from university housing. Other sanctions, like loss of network connectivity or research projects may also be imposed.

With so many students on campus, how can I get caught if I illegally upload/download music?
Project NEThics handles all complaints regarding online piracy here at the University of Maryland. The unit averages 50 complaints against students and other university network users each week. Copyright holders monitor peer-to-peer (P2P) sites such as BitTorrent, Gnutella, and eDonkey to find illegal sharing of their intellectual property. When they find it, they identify the IP address of the user providing the file or downloading the file and complain to those users’ Internet Service Providers (the University of Maryland, in our case). Penalties for repeated complaints can include loss of network access and removal from student housing. However, if you are investigated and charged by the FBI or other law enforcement agencies, you will probably fare much worse. For more information, please visit www.nethics.umd.edu.

What are the Student Guidelines for Network Computer Use?
Students must agree to the Student Guidelines for Network Computer Use when setting up their residence hall network connection. They state, in part:

You MAY install and operate server software on your computer as long as the use of the software does not impact the use of the network by other students, is installed and operated securely, and conforms to the Policy on the Acceptable Use of Information Technology Resources. However, your computer MAY NOT be the source of persistent traffic to the network as the result of running such services (possible sources include: sharing files with a peer-to-peer network, operating a streaming web cam, operating a public FTP or IRC server). Additionally, your computer MAY NOT serve as a file sharing hub if it is facilitating the illegal sharing of copyrighted material.

Why does the university care so much about what I do on my own private computer?
The university provides Internet access and network connections to students and other members of the university community, but in exchange, it expects them to comply with the terms of the Policy on the Acceptable Use of Information Technology Resources. According to the policy, it is a direct violation to conduct illegal activity – such as online piracy – while connected to the university network. Essentially, that means if you want to access the Internet using the campus network, you need to play by the university’s rules.

In addition, many members of the university community, faculty and students in particular, create their own original works, such as inventions, scholarly articles, music, and videos. As an institution of creativity and innovation, the university needs to respect the rights of all creators.

If I pay a subscription fee to a peer-to-peer site, am I protected from being accused of copyright infringement?
There are many websites deceptively offering paid subscription services for access to music tracks that are not legal. An individual can still be sued by the Recording Industry Association of America if a website falsely promotes the sale of its music as ‘legal’ when the music has not been obtained through legal means. File sharing programs are only legal when they pay licenses to copyright holders (like iTunes does) or when they are used to upload and download material that you have created and therefore own the copyright to.

What if I download music using a service that is positioned outside the United States?
If you illegally download music while in the United States, you can still be prosecuted, no matter where the server is located, including overseas, according to the U.S. Copyright Office.

How can I avoid being a target of a copyright infringement lawsuit for online piracy?
Don’t download or install the P2P programs that facilitate copyright infringement. If you do download music, movies, or other materials online, be sure it’s from a legal downloading service.

Will the university protect me if I am accused of/charged with copyright infringement?
While the university ensures that information about students is not released without appropriate court orders, the university is not able to offer you legal protection should you be accused of, charged with, or convicted of copyright infringement.

Where can I get more information?
For more information about the consequences of and alternatives to illegal uploading and downloading, please visit www.nethics.umd.edu or www.copyright.gov.