Uncovering the lawfulness of accessing unlicensed content

Legality and consequences of possesing such content depends on the means by which the media is acquired


Design by Lauren Klass

Even though downloading and streaming media such as music, TV shows and movies is considered a federal crime, many Paly students admitted to partaking in this activity.

BitTorrent, Putlocker, mp3skull, The Pirate Bay and LetMeWatchThis. Any of these websites ring a bell? All of them contain copies of unlicensed music, movies and television shows available to the public for free. People all over the world use these kinds of websites to access content rather than use websites like Netflix or Amazon that require fees in order to view the same content.

In a survey conducted of 245 current Paly students, 73 percent of students admitted to downloading unlicensed music off the internet, with 35 percent of respondents reporting that they download music at least once a month. Furthermore, 83 percent of students admitted to watching unlicensed movies or television shows from streaming websites, and 56 percent of the total respondents said they watched these movies and shows at least once a month.

But is downloading unlicensed music or streaming free movies actually illegal?

Whether or not downloading music or streaming movies and shows is illegal all boils down to whether or not the user is committing copyright infringement. According to chapter five of Title 17 of the United States Code, a copyright infringer is someone who breaks the terms of certain exclusive rights given to the copyright holder, including rights to reproduce, distribute and display certain works. Someone who violates these exclusive rights has broken the law, making his or her actions illegal.

When a consumer decides to download music from an unauthorized website like mp3skull, he or she is committing copyright infringement. Though the consumer is technically not redistributing the work, he or she is accessing the work from a distributor who does not have permission to do so.

According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), common types of online copyright infringement can include joining a file-sharing network and downloading unauthorized copies of music from other network members, transferring copyrighted music through means such as instant messaging or making an MP3 copy of a song and uploading it onto the internet so others can download it.

These types of copyright infringement do not just apply to music, but can extend to other works such as movies and television shows. The bottom line is that downloading an unauthorized copy of media off the internet is most likely illegal as downloading equates to copying, a violation of the copyright holder’s rights. Distributing these works is always illegal, whether through means of uploading unlicensed content online or sending it to friends through email, as the act is the equivalent to giving away free copies of music that the copyright holder intended to sell.

Given these restrictions, it seems reasonable to conclude that streaming movies and shows off of unauthorized streaming websites is also a form of copyright infringement. When asked, 75 percent of respondents said that they knew that streaming unlicensed movies or shows is illegal.

However, streaming unlicensed content is actually legal as long as users avoid breaking two rules, according to Jim Gibson, director of the Intellectual Property Institute at the University of Richmond School of Law.

Downloading any part of a file while streaming a movie is considered illegal, as this means a copy has been made of unlicensed content. Secondly, streaming content publicly is also considered illegal, as this counts as distribution of the work, a violation of copyright laws. For example, showing a movie from a streaming website to a classroom full of people is an illegal act.

By avoiding these two acts, a user who views movies and shows through streaming websites is not illegally viewing content, although the user is viewing content that was published illegally. Since the user is not distributing or copying the movie or show by just simply viewing it, he or she has not committed copyright infringement.

Since many people illegally obtain works off the internet, it seems like there is no punishment for doing so since these illegal activities usually take place in the privacy of a home. However, there are laws that outline the punishments for those who commiy copyright infringement.

With respect to the copying of music, criminal penalties for first-time offenders of copying or distributing music can be as high as five years in prison and $250,000 in fines. If sued by the copyright holder in a civil court, civil penalties for the same act can reach thousands of dollars in damage and legal fees, with the minimum penalty being $750 per song, according to the RIAA.

The same law applies to downloading movies, though the price per work would naturally be higher since a movie is worth more than a song.

Yet, even with these punishments in place, people continue to break the law by using these websites to access free content.At Paly, 83 percent of students admitted that they knew that downloading unlicensed music is illegal, yet the majority of respondents said they did it anyway. The chances of getting caught in the privacy of one’s home seem miniscule and to some, there are worse crimes that law enforcement focus on.

“I’ve never heard of anyone getting fined or having trouble with the law from illegal streaming or downloads of music and movies,” an anonymous junior said. “Authorities have better things to spend their time on.”

Regardless of the lack of enforcement of the law, the law is still the law, and there are reasons for its existence. Copyright laws protect the rights of those who create these works. Artists depend on the sales of their music in order to make money, but they cannot make this money if consumers just download free copies of their music from the internet. The same situation applies to all those who earn revenues from movies and television shows, like directors, producers and actors. Accessing content for free instead of paying for it takes away from the revenue artists are supposed to earn for the product they produced.

Though it may seem more worth it at times to just access the free content since getting caught seems unlikely, just remember that laws are created for a reason, and someone out there is losing hard-earned money just because you decided to take the risk and obtain unlicensed content.