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File Sharing Law

Millions of Americans download media files via the Internet. But when are these downloads legal, and when are they not?

By
Michael W. Flynn
5-minute read

First, a disclaimer: Although I am an attorney, the legal information in this podcast is not intended to be a substitute for seeking personalized legal advice from an attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction. Further, I do not intend to create an attorney-client relationship with any listener.

Today’s topic is file sharing and downloading on the Internet. Millions of Americans download media files via the Internet. But when are these downloads legal, and when are they not? The Quick and Dirty Tip is that if you would normally have to pay for it at your local Borders or Barnes & Noble, you must also pay for it on the Internet. You may not download it for free.

Under federal law, artistic works such as songs, movies, books, and photographs can be copyrighted. Once the work is copyrighted, the creator of the work gets a number of rights including the exclusive rights to copy and distribute it.

For example, U2 wrote and recorded an excellent album titled The Joshua Tree. They copyrighted their songs and the artwork used on the CD. Then you buy it. You can listen to the album, use songs in a mix CD or playlist on your iTunes, etc. But, you cannot make 100 copies and sell them on the street corner because you are infringing on U2’s right to do so. They made the album and copyrighted it, so they get to control its distribution.

The same idea applies to the Internet. You can buy The Joshua Tree, burn it to your computer, and listen to it. You cannot then charge people $1 each to download a song from you. Under the No Electronic Theft Act, you cannot give the song away for free either. You are, again, doing things that only U2 has the right to do: copy and distribute.

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