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File sharing: Caring or Copyright Infringement?

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The Internet, and filesharing in particular, has caused quite a stir in several industries, as copyright law has been put to the test as a result. Whether it’s music, movies, software, or literature, people are downloading copyrighted works online every day and only a handful have ever been taken to court over it. What’s going on here?

We all remember how the filesharing giant Napster was taken down because of copyright infringement, but the reality is lots of Napster-like filesharing programs have popped up in its place and their operators have found ways to avoid legal responsibility. And indeed, it is the file sharers that are typically at risk – not the operators of the file sharing program.

So what does that mean for your neighbor or coworker or perhaps even you, who loves to download music online? It may not mean much at all. File sharing is so widespread these days, that organizations like the RIAA can’t possibly enforce copyright laws across the board. But that doesn’t mean you aren’t breaking the law.

In the late 90’s, President Clinton signed into law the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. There needed to be new law to address new technology; it’s been a difficult task preserving old copyrights, because the ease of copyright infringement increases as the number of Internet users goes up every year. Even with new policies, filesharing and copyrights are still very much a big national debate and you can probably find a bunch of news stories on the topic from week to week, all relating to how the debate is gradually changing over time.

College students typically face more risk at being called to task for sharing files, as compared to the rest of the population. This is because universities are also Internet Service Providers and they are  more compelled to hand over the IP addresses of file sharing students when a powerful organization like the RIAA breathes down their necks. Consequently, young people have been aggressively sued and forced to pay up to thousands of dollars out of court. For a few, filesharing has been rather costly and a painful lesson to learn. For the rest of us, at least right now, the risk appears minimal. Be wary, though – the RIAA, specifically, wants to change that – so what’s easy to do today may be difficult to do tomorrow.

This is why keeping up with filesharing news is so important; whether you want to know what’s legal and what’s illegal or whether you’re an artist simply trying to protect your creation, copyright law is constantly being challenged in new ways, thanks to filesharing. Many musicians have embraced file sharing and used it for their own betterment, while others have been audibly offended by it (take the band Metallica for instance).

Parents usually tell their kids to share when they’re little, but should they encourage them to share files online? Probably not! But where do you cross the line between innocuous communication between Internet users and copyright infringement? There doesn’t seem to be a clear answer to this yet, but there are enough private interests who want an answer soon.  

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