When Media Sharing Becomes Piracy, What Are the Consequences?

When Media Sharing Becomes Piracy, What Are the Consequences?

by Kylie Ora Lobell, May 2016

In 2000, Metallica sued Napster, the original online file sharing service. The band wanted $100,000 per copyright violation, which could have cost Napster more than $10 million. The company ended up settling with Metallica, but the case became infamous and set the tone for the future of copyright piracy law.

It's been 16 years since that case took place and, in that time, there have been more instances of content creators fighting back against illegal pirates online. Three years ago, a judge upheld a lawsuit against a Boston University student who was sued by the Recording Industry of America for $675,000. The student was ordered to pay $22,500 for each of the 30 songs that he illegally downloaded and shared with others.

Along with the music industry, the movie business is taking on pirates. In September 2015, indie film studio Millennium Films and its affiliate Nu Image filed a lawsuit against users of Popcorn Time. The movie studio took action against 16 Popcorn Time users in Oregon who downloaded and distributed pirated copies of the movie Survivor, asking only for the statutory minimum $750 per person for damages. Each user could, under the law, have been fined up to $150,000.

The ins and outs of copyright law—and the consequences for violating it

If you illegally download or share music, movies, software, or other copyrighted content, it's considered a violation of copyright under federal law. A civil lawsuit may result in the defendant having to pay out thousands or even millions of dollars, while a criminal charge can lead to an up to $250,000 fine and a maximum of five years in prison.

Copyright law is specified under 17 U.S.C. § 504 – Remedies for Infringement: Damages and profits. It states that if someone violates copyright, he or she may face fines of $750 to $30,000 per work. This is because the copyright owner experienced statutory damages. If the copyright owner can prove that the violator willfully infringed upon the copyright, the fine can be up to $150,000 per work.

According to Thompson Hall, in many cases, a copyright owner will figure out who the illegal downloader is through his or her IP address. Using the Internet to download material makes you identifiable by the owner of the copyrighted material. After the owner files a lawsuit, they can subpoena your Internet service provider to access your contact information. The copyright owner may then send a letter threatening legal action or requesting a settlement.

Have you violated copyright law?

If you have done any of the following, then you are at risk of being fined for illegally downloading and/or sharing content:

  1. You use a peer-to-peer downloading service to retrieve music, movies, or software from other users.
  2. You share your downloaded content with other users on a file-sharing network.
  3. You download audio from a YouTube video and put it on your phone to listen to at your leisure.
  4. You send copyrighted content to your friends and family through email or instant messaging.
  5. You rip a movie or television show from a DVD or legal streaming service and post it online for other people to watch for free.

If you're doing any of the above, you could have to pay thousands, if not millions, in fines. Because fines are on a per-violation basis, if you violate copyright on multiple works, the collective fines can be quite high.

Your financial liability depends upon what kinds of charges are brought against you, as well as what the judge decides regarding the amount of damages to award the copyright owner.

If you have questions about media sharing and piracy and want to speak to an attorney, LegalZoom can put you in touch with an attorney who can answer your questions when you sign up for the business legal plan.