Piracy and File Sharing

Movies, computer software, and music are all forms of intellectual property—products of human intelligence. As technology has evolved from analog technology to digital technology, it has become easier to store and transmit types of intellectual property over the Internet from one computer user to another. This new technology sometimes results in a collision between quickly evolving technology and decades-old copyright law.

Computer technology makes it easy to share digital files between users. A file is a block of information stored on a magnetic media, such as on a hard disk, a tape, or a flash drive; examples of files are computer programs, documents, music, and movies. The practice of sharing files illegally exploded when a format for audio compression produced a type of file known as an MP3 file. This audio compression was important because it significantly reduced the amount of data that needed to be sent over computer networks, but did not affect the perceived quality of the sound or image being transmitted. For example, the MP3 format can reduce the digital recording of a song by a ratio of up to 12 to 1.

File-sharing services allow web users to find and download files from hard drives of other computers. File-sharing is often accomplished through peer-to-peer networks. Pure peer-to-peer computer networks use the computing power of its participants, rather than relying on servers. However, other peer-to-peer networks use a server to communicate the host user’s Internet address to a requesting user. The requesting user utilizes this information to connect to the host user’s computer. Once the connection is made, a copy of an MP3 file may be downloaded to the requesting user’s computer. In a peer-to-peer network, anyone on the network may access files stored on other network computers. Legal issues arise when peer-to-peer networks and other methods are used for the unauthorized transfer and copying of copyrighted materials, such as music, books, and movie files. The illegal duplication and distribution of copyrighted files is known as piracy.

Copyright infringement issues also arise with regard to streaming media. Streaming media is the transmission or transfer of data that is delivered to an online viewer in a steady stream in near real time. Copyrighted content may not be streamed without the express authorization of the copyright holder.

Copyright infringement and piracy issues implicate both criminal and civil law. Most issues are handled under federal law, although state laws sometimes play a part. On the civil side, copyright holders may sue for monetary or statutory damages. In addition, the government may file criminal charges.

The scope of piracy and illegal file-sharing is vast. According to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), more than 1.8 million illegal movies and 3,059 duplicating machines were seized in North America in 2004.

On October 12, 2005, the United States Attorney’s Office of the Northern District of California handed down indictments charging several individuals with a scheme to pirate more than 325,000 illegal copies of copyrighted CDs and software. Reportedly the largest CD manufacturing seizure in the country to date, authorities allege that counterfeit copies were made with sophisticated replicating equipment that made the copies look legitimate in every way, even down to affixing the FBI Anti-Piracy warning label that states, “Unauthorized copying is punishable under federal law.”

Piracy issues are by no means confined to the United States. For example, in December 2005, officials in Jakarta, Indonesia, announced that they had seized 2.35 million pirated optical discs in three raids over a ten-day period. In the Asia-Pacific region alone, the MPA (the international counterpart of the MPAA) estimated annual losses of approximately $900 million. In 2004, approximately 49,000,000 illegal optical discs were seized in the area.

Inside Piracy and File Sharing