“Friction” between torrent downloaders and producers of music, movies and other media has been a topic of great controversy the last few years. However, the start of this issue can be traced back to more than two decades ago.
Napster first came online in 1999 as a peer-to-peer (P2P) 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 these laws.
These days, the proverbial tug of war between uploaders and downloaders of torrents is more centered around torrent platforms such as The Pirate Bay and RARBG. Additionally, the rise of music and video entertainment services such as Netflix and Spotify has also meant people have other affordable and convenient means of consuming the latest video/music content. However, there are still a lot of people who resort to downloading torrents.
Furthermore, there is another thing regarding downloading which hasn’t changed: 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 and which punishments you might face. That’s why we’ll tell you all about this in this article.
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) was 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. Alternatively, you might see it sometimes when you’re searching for a full movie on Google, at the bottom of the page.
What does the DMCA say about downloading?
The DMCA essentially comprises three main elements.
First, it prohibits the creation and distribution of technology created with the purpose of circumventing copyright-protecting measures. Secondly, it puts harsher punishments in place for people who violate someone’s copyright. Lastly, the DMCA limits the liability of internet service providers and website and platform owners when copyright-infringing content is uploaded or downloaded by a user of this platform. For the purpose of this article, mainly the latter two points are very important.
As part, or rather as a condition of this lessened liability, 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. It is in YouTube’s, or any other platform’s for that matter, best interest to comply with these notices. After all, if they remove the content, they cannot be held liable.
The punishment of 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 those 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 for 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.
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.
Which Countries Allow for and Enforce Download Fines?
So far, we have primarily focused on laws regarding downloading in the United States. However, there are other countries in which you could face a hefty fine and punishment when downloading copyrighted material. To give you an idea of the situation in other countries around the world, we included a useful table below that shows you some countries that allow and do not punish downloading for personal use, some countries where you can get a download fine and some which actively enforce download fines.
|Downloading allowed (for personal use)||Download Fines (not enforced)||Download fines (enforced)|
|Egypt||United Arab Emirates|
In most parts of Europe, illegal downloading could result in a fine or a warning from the local police. In the United States and other parts of the world, this is also the case. Japan, India, and Malaysia all have laws against illegal downloading. If you live in one of these countries or will be visiting soon, make sure you don’t end up with a high fine! Look for legal ways to watch your movies, listen to your music, or play your games. You can usually rely on services such as Netflix, Spotify, and Steam. We do know that these services often enforce their own set of restrictions, such as the geo-restrictions which Netflix enforces. Luckily, however, there are some easy ways to get around these restrictions. For instance, you can easily get access to the U.S. version of Netflix wherever you are, by changing your IP-address with a VPN.
Important notice: laws can change. Before engaging in downloading, always make sure you’re aware of the current laws of the country you’re in. This way, you’ll always know exactly what is and isn’t allowed. This also goes for utilizing ways to get around geographic restrictions, in which case you should also make sure to read through any user agreements you are bound by and act in accordance with these.
Which Countries Block Download Websites?
In some countries, (torrent) download websites such as The Pirate Bay aren’t accessible due to online geo-blocks. By setting up these blocks, authorities try to keep civilians from finding websites to download illegal content from. Below, we’ve listed all countries known to be blocking websites having to do with (illegal) downloading.
Countries where (torrent) download websites have been blocked:
- The Netherlands
- New Zealand
- Saudi Arabia
- South Africa
- United Arab Emirates
- United Kingdom
What Kind of Fines can you Expect?
Not every country that gives fines for illegal downloading does so in the same way, or in the same amount. The sum of the fine can differ greatly depending on where you are. In Germany, for example, individuals caught downloading copyrighted content can expect a fine between €900 and €1000. A woman in the US was forced to pay $80.000 per downloaded song, which came down to about 1,9 million dollars for 24 songs. In some countries, illegal downloading could even result in a prison sentence, depending on the severity of the crime. In Japan, you might get a fine worth about $25.700 – or end up in prison for up to two years.
Not all illegal downloaders will end up paying the price for their actions. By sending out high fines to just a few individuals, authorities try to show how severe punishments can be. They hope to scare off other offenders this way. The actual consequences will differ per case. If you illegally download a film in Japan, you won’t be sent to jail straight away, although there is a chance you might end up there. The table below gives an indication of the possible consequences of illegally downloading in different countries.
|Belgium||Fines up to €65.000|
|Germany||Fines between €900 and €1000|
|Finland||One man received a fine of €2.200|
|France||Up to €300.000 and three years in prison|
|India||Up to three years in prison|
|Japan||Up to two years in prison or a maximum fine of $25,700|
|Malaysia||On average about €430 (converted) per downloaded song|
|New Zealand||Fines up to $15.000|
|United Arab Emirates||$1.200 per “act of piracy”|
|United States||One woman had to pay $80.000 per download song ($1,9 million in total)|
|United Kingdom||Up to three years in prison and a fine of £150.000|
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.