If you saw someone walking into a store, taking a DVD of the latest blockbuster film or a CD of a popular artist from the shelf, hiding it in their jacket and walking out without paying – there would be no question that they were a thief. Most people would agree that they had done something morally wrong which is not accepted in our society.
However, why is it that when we download the same music or film on our computer illegally in order to watch it without paying, it is not universally regarded as reproachable behaviour? Is it not essentially the same thing to take the DVD from the shelf physically or download it electronically? In both cases, you are consuming the entertainment without the creator of the content (the film producers, musicians, actors, etc.) receiving the profit that they are due. Many people put a lot of effort and time into producing that content and you are not giving back to them in any way. How would you like it if you were an author and people were downloading your book for free rather than paying you royalties? You wouldn’t be happy!
The Risk of Downloading Copyrighted Files
These days, there are many easy ways to get access to copyrighted music, movies, software, etc. However, just because these illegal files are available on the internet doesn’t mean that you should be downloading them. You could be getting yourself into a lot of trouble if you do.
Not paying the creators of the work isn’t just an ethical issue – it’s also committing an illegal act. According to United States copyright law, you could be punished with up to five years in prison or $250,000 in fines. In fact, many Internet Service Providers are on the lookout for connections to illegal websites so that they can put a red flag on large file downloads.
The Dangers to Your Computer’s Health
Of course, above and beyond the legal and ethical issues of downloading copyright files is the damage that it can do to your computer. Many dodgy files downloaded through illegal websites can expose your computer to spyware, malware and viruses. This can cause your computer to malfunction or crash and can even cause you to lose important files and irreplaceable work. In order to solve the problem, you will need to take your computer to a specialist to fix which will cost you money. In the end, you can end up paying a lot more in computer repair bills than it would have cost you to simply buy the DVD or see the film in theatres in the first place.
Also, there is a significant risk when using Peer to Peer or P2P networks. Many private and confidential documents have been found through these networks and scammers can use them to record your passports by using spyware.
Not All File Sharing Is Illegal
It is possible to take advantage of file sharing in a way that is not illegal and doesn’t infringe copyright. There are many software tools that allow people to share files legally and there are many files out there that are not protected by copyright, so they are completely legal for you to download. For example, most books published before 1923 (with some exceptions) will be “in the public domain” which means that you don’t have to worry about copyright when you download them and read them. Just use your common sense when looking for legal downloads – for example if a piece of software is free or ridiculously cheap and you know that it normally costs 3 or 4 times the price in a store – it’s probably an illegal download.
What Can I Do?
As you can see, there are a lot of ethical problems with downloading illegal files – so what can you do?
Some P2P client operators like Vuze.com have taken the lead by educating their users to take a stand against illegal downloading. Vuze point their users towards legal downloading practices. It is also important to do your research and keep yourself informed about how copyright laws work. If you aren’t sure whether or not a file is in the public domain, you can look it up on the internet and find out for certain before you decide to download it.
Always remember to stay on the right side of copyright law when downloading content online.
James Murphy is passionate about media and technology. He likes to talk about electronics, the internet, media and other topics.