If you download a song, film, game or software from a file-sharing website or another website (such as a page on a social-networking site) where it’s made available, and you do not pay for the item or otherwise obtain it under licence from the copyright holder, then you are infringing someone’s copyright.
The main dangers of infringing copyright in this way are (i) the potential for civil liability to the copyright holder, and (ii) the introduction of spyware, viruses or other unwelcome items to your computer as part of the download process.
It is also possible for a person to face criminal prosecution for copyright infringement, but the copyright statutes in the UK in effect limit the offence to the large-scale distribution of pirated material for financial gain. An individual who occasionally downloads songs via a peer-to-peer sharing site is unlikely to face criminal liability, and in fact the prosecuting authorities failed in at least one recent attempt to prosecute an individual who was operating a file-sharing website in the UK.
Civil liability, on the other hand, is a distinct possibility. Copyright holders frequently seek to identify and obtain compensation from individuals who download copyright material in a way that infringes the copyright. They do this by obtaining records from internet service providers (ISPs) and then getting their lawyers to write to people who have, according to the records, infringed their copyright. Ordinarily the lawyers’ letters demand a sum of money as compensation for the copyright infringement.
In 2008, ISPs and industry organisations representing copyright holders entered into a memorandum of understanding relating to the enforcement of copyright. Among other things, the memorandum of understanding said that ISPs would give notice to subscribers who were suspected of downloading material in breach of copyright, and advising them as to the availability of legal downloads.
The new Digital Economy Act 2010 is likely to take matters a step further. Under the Act, Ofcom (the communications regulator) is to draw up a code of practice as to how ISPs and copyright holders should deal with copyright infringement. Once the code of practice is completed, Ofcom is to monitor enforcement efforts under it, and will re-assess the situation after a year.
The website for the Internet Enforcement Group has more information about copyright holders’ efforts to stop online copyright infringement.
If you receive a letter threatening legal action for copyright infringement, your solicitor can advise you as to the severity of the threat and the alternatives open to you. You can search for a copyright solicitor in our directory by using the form on the right side of this page.