Napster first came online in 1999 as a peer-to-peer service for sharing music online. It exploded in popularity gaining 80 million users in just a few years. It was so popular, in fact, that the music industry acted to shut Napster down in 2001. Since then, the US Congress and other lawmaking bodies have acted to create and enforce restrictions on what can be downloaded or shared online. These laws specify what downloads are illegal, and what fines users may face for violating the laws. Ignorance of the law does not excuse one from punishment, so it’s better to know what acts might be illegal when downloading content online.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act
In 1998, the United States passed an amendment to Title 17, the law that deals with copyright matters. The point of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is to update copyright law to deal with digital technology. You are probably most familiar with the DMCA from seeing it when you find a YouTube video has been taken down for being in violation of the act.
what is DMCA?
The DMCA limits the liability of internet service providers (ISPs) and websites. If an ISP or website detects copyright infringement, they agree to take down the content. This also occurs when a company is notified of content that infringes on copyright. When a copyright holder finds a video on YouTube, for example, that they believe violates their rights, they can request the service to take it down. When you go to load that page and see the notice that YouTube has removed the video for DMCA violations, this is usually what has happened.
DMCA does not only govern illegal copying of material. It also makes it a criminal offense to get around digital rights management (DRM). DRM code is what makes it difficult or impossible to copy information from a CD, DVD, or other protected source. Even if you do not copy the information or share it with anyone, the mere act of getting around the copy protection is illegal under DMCA.
There are some exceptions to the legislation. For example, if you are trying to copy data from your hard drive that failed to your new hard drive, this is legal. Making a copy of data as a backup is also exempt from DMCA laws. You can also share short sections of a copyrighted work for review or discussion. But each exemption is defined under narrow terms and you should research the specifics that apply to your situation.
Enforcement for DMCA violations can include both civil and criminal penalties. If found guilty, a person may be required to pay up to $2,500 in actual damages for each violation. Repeat offenders may face up to triple damages. Criminal penalties include fines of up to $500,000 and up to five years in prison for the first offense. Repeat offenders face up to $1 million in fines and up to ten years in prison. The court will likely also grant an injunction against the guilty to keep him or her from further violations in the future.
The NET Act
The NET Act is short for the No Electronic Theft Act. This law was passed in 1997 and is an attempt to govern online piracy. Piracy is when copyrighted content is copied and distributed, whether for money or free. The NET Act aims at curbing piracy of music, video games, movies, and software.
The Lesser and the Greater Category
The NET Act is split into two categories. The lesser category criminalizes copyright infringement of material with a value of at least $1,000. The greater category includes profiting on copyrighted material of at least $2,500 and involves at least 10 copies of material within 180 days. Note that the lesser category does not require the violator to have made any profit from the material. It should also be noted that the value of the material is cumulative. If a violator uploads a song that is downloaded 100 times, each download will add to the value counted against him or her.
NET Act Fines
Punishment for the lesser category includes fines of up to $100,000 and up to one year in prison. For the greater category, the NET Act provides for penalties of up to $250,000 and up to five years in prison. On top of these criminal penalties, the copyright holder may also seek civil claims for the value of the copyrighted content.
The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act
The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) is designed to specifically target hacking. While passed originally in 1986, the law has been amended multiple times. The most recent changes brought it under the Identity Theft Enforcement and Restitution Act. The law gives the federal government very broad powers to counter any computer activity it feels may threaten government, banking, or businesses.
While designed specifically to target hacking, this law in its broadest interpretation can be used to target any illegal downloading of information. The activity in the act can also be used to punish those who are not directly involved in such crimes. For example, if your friend illegally downloads music or videos and passes them on to you, the CFAA may be used to punish you. Or if you loan your copy of a DVD to a friend knowing they intend to make a copy of it, you may be targeted under the CFAA.
The CFAA also specifically covers unauthorized access or use of a computer or computer service. This means if you use a software or website in a way outside of the terms of service you agreed to, you could be charged under the CFAA. For example, Facebook prohibits using its service with a false name. If you create an account that does not use your real name, you are technically in violation of the CFAA.
There are many different penalties for violation of the different parts of the CFAA. A first offense, though, can be punishable by up to five years in prison and fines. Some portions of the CFAA provide penalties of life in prison if you are deemed a repeat offender. Fines can range from a few thousand dollars to millions of dollars.
The laws and fines for illegal downloading can be confusing. The fact that users can be potentially liable for even seemingly innocent mistakes can make many people uncomfortable with downloads of any kind. As the information age is still rather young, the laws to govern it are still being written and may not be a good representation of justice in every case. It is best to read the terms of service for websites and software. And take special care to avoid downloads of questionable legality.