Sued For Downloading?

Category: File-Sharing , Privacy

More and more, people are asking me if they can get sued by the entertainment industry for downloading, music, movies, games or television shows. The answer is YES, maybe. Read on and learn how to download safely, and avoid the snares of the RIAA, MPAA and copyright lawyers...

copyright pirate

Can I Get Sued For Downloading?

It's easy to get a false sense of anonymity while on the Internet. So many people on it, so many websites, so many files available to download and share. Downloading and sharing files are among the more popular tasks web surfers do from their computers. From music to movies to games, there are so many files out there just waiting to hop onto your hard drive.

But… is it legal to download and/or share all these goodies? And what if something you download is copyrighted, and it turns out you're a pirate? In the vastness that is the Internet, who's gonna know?

The fact is, anyone who has an interest in protecting copyrighted material may know. Take the case of college student Cassi Hunt. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), an organization that acts as a watchdog for copyright infringements against recording artists, filed a lawsuit against Cassi in 2006. They sued the MIT student for allegedly downloading over two-hundred songs from a file-sharing website. Negotiations resulted in a demand for $3750, and the RIAA went so far as to suggest that she drop out of college or attend a community college so she could afford the payments.

Lawyers for the RIAA, MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) and NBC Universal have also gone after 12-year-olds, grandmas and even dead people, charging them with software piracy and copyright infringement. In some cases they demand immediate payment, while others have been threatened with legal action.

Obviously, someone is watching what you download or share with others over the Internet. It is rumored that RIAA, MPAA and other copyright watchdogs monitor the traffic on P2P networks. It's also possible that Internet service providers may provide them with logs that reveal illegal activity. And if you use software such as LimeWire that enables automatic sharing of downloaded files, it's very easy for a third party to catch you in the act.

P2P and File Sharing Networks: What's Legal?

Peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing services like Limewire and BitTorrent allow users to share files and exchange directly from their hard drives, without going through a website or centralized file sharing service. There are a lot of BitTorrent software and sites available; uTorrent and TorrentSpy are among the more widely used. Software like this has been at the forefront of intellectual property debates; although the P2P and torrent software is legal to use, a lot of people are illegally downloading and sharing copyrighted files like music and movies. (See What is Limewire File Sharing? and Downloading With Bittorrent for more information on those topics.)

So how do you know what is legit or not? Here's a good rule of thumb to follow: If a popular song, movie, tv show or computer game is offered as a free download on a file-sharing service such as LimeWire, Bittorrent or Kazaa, it's almost certainly an illegal copy. It doesn't matter if you're downloading for "personal use" or that you're not selling the files to anyone. If you download copyrighted material without the owner's permission, you have violated the law, and there's a chance you will be called on it.

With services like iTunes, or Napster, you pay a small fee to download music. And because Napster and iTunes have agreements with recording labels, there are no legal or copyright concerns. If you are paying for the file, chances are the site offering it is adhering to copyright laws. Unless you know for sure the files you are downloading or sharing are not copyrighted, there is always a risk that you can find yourself named in some class-action lawsuit filed by the RIAA or the MPAA.

And yes, there are programs such as PeerGuardian, Protowall and others that will help to anonymize your Bittorrent activities. Will they protect you 100 percent? Maybe today... maybe not tomorrow. Is it worth the risk?

Downloading Safely

You can safely download by using sites that only search for legal files. Don't get a false sense of security by thinking why would anyone go after you when there are millions of people downloading files. There are individuals who are paid solely to seek out copyright infringements. Use common sense; a box-office hit movie currently in the theatres is most likely a pirated copy whether it is being offered on the Internet for download, or by some guy on a street corner selling DVDs on a blanket.

Independent filmmakers and struggling musicians often willingly allow their projects for download, hoping to create enough of a fan-base to generate some buzz about their work. If you are interested in a particular form of data whether it be a song, movie or computer program, it pays to check the creator's website to see if they have legal, downloadable files to offer. Follow these tips, and can you'll be able to download with a clear conscience and no fear of fines or legal action.

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Most recent comments on "Sued For Downloading?"

Posted by:

09 Aug 2007

Excellent article. I was reading the other day where they were suing someone and pulling in their employer, asking for every hard drive the person owned, asking to talk to anyone who had used the computer going back years. Scary stuff. :( And now they're even going after states (if I reads it on the internets, it must be true): RIAA To Sue Minnesota -

Posted by:

11 Aug 2007

A lot of the time independent record labels, independent musicians, and unsigned musicians (without a record contract with any record label) will allow sharing of their music on p2p as they see p2p as a good tool for promotion of their music (according to This is probably the case with most of these labels and artists. There may be some indie labels that will sue you but I've never heard of it since TVT withdrew their suit. I'm not 100% sure about all of the artists. Like you said don't get a false sense of security, but according to you have about as much of a chance of being sued as you have of being struck by lightning. If you want to be safe and still share files on p2p only share files with an Open Source license, a creative commons license, or public domain material. For creative commons files check out the list of free distributors of them at I hope this info helps/doesn't hurt anyone. Best Intentions.

Posted by:

Dave S
11 Aug 2007

Question...can and does the RIAA monitor downloads from Usenet? If so, how do they do this? Also, if someone has downloaded a song but the person owns the vinyl, cassette, or CD with the song, can RIAA still sue since we have aleady bought the music?

EDITOR'S NOTE: Some people suspect that the RIAA uses "honeypot" sites which they own. If you connect and download, they have your IP address. Most ISPs will roll over and give you up. And yes, downloading a digital copy of a song that you already own on physical media is "technically" illegal. Personally I have no qualms about downloading a replacement copy of a song on a damaged CD, but the record company would argue that you have to buy a new one.

Posted by:

Jon E.
31 Aug 2007

I am a professional musician, independent songwriter and producer. I wonder how many people who defend the practice of "internet file sharing" would be willing to freely "share" their means of earning a living. Should accountants "share" their spreadsheets? Journalists their source files? Manufacturers their design specifications? Of course not, those products have implied and real value. But for products in my industry, that intrinsic value is undermined by a culture that devalues music to such an extent that people now argue, in effect, that it has no value at all. Remember folks, what you pay for something reflects what you think it’s worth. It’s a dismal truth that those of us who actually make music are grappling with, how can we expect music to be produced by professionals when the product has zero value to the consumer? The answer is, many of us have and continue to find other means to make a living outside the music industry. Arguing the finer points like you do here misses the big picture, the decline of our industry to amateur status. If you’re OK with that, fine, but the best and the brightest will continue to make their living elsewhere. Remember, you get what you pay for...

Posted by:

steve h
24 Jan 2008

Well, as for me, I'm really mad at these goon squads. These goons are going after only the little guy, not the CD bootleggers that SELL forged CDs. Now I really don't do downloads like this, but these tactics are real overkill. In protest, I refuse to buy any new CDs--I just listen on the radio. Between the overpriced CDs and their twisted "copyright" interpretations, they won't get a dime of my money.

Posted by:

23 Jul 2008

I recently downloaded a few torrent files. I would say about 5 max. After researching torrent files, I realize I am making a huge mistake. I dont want to be a pirate, and have removed all such software form my computer. In your experience have companies gone after small time users, or do they mostly gun for larger game?

EDITOR'S NOTE: In most cases, the first salvo is a warning from the media company to the ISP, whic is forwarded to the user. If you delete the offending materials, I'd say you should be fine.

Posted by:

Tal Hawkins
05 Jan 2009

To Jon E. I'm also a musician and I think internet file sharing is one of the best ideas to have been initiated. Think about the historical and cultural changes in music. Some of the greatest new genres (eg. Jazz, Hip-hop) have been created through a fusion of sounds only available because the influencing music was ACCESSIBLE. Music is now more accessible than ever before, and from a creativity point of view that is hugely useful.

It depends what your priority is as a musician: are you a musician because you want to make money, or are you a musician because you want to make music? If you want the money maybe you are better off working in some other industry? The best music is that which musicians have written from their heart with no incentive or motivation other than expression of emotion.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Says who? All of the great classical masters had patrons...

Posted by:

21 Feb 2009

I had heard somewhere that artists make deals with record companies to distribute their music, but the artists themselves make the most money by doing tours and such. I can understand that most fans of (favorite artist) would much rather see a live performance than listen to the studio songs, and it is reflected in the balance of the free market.

Posted by:

Zeke Krahlin
05 Mar 2009

{{ what you pay for something reflects what you think it’s worth }}

Nonsense. That is a false value of a pathetically materialistic dogma. The absurd monthly fee I pay to keep a slummy roof over my head, does NOT reflect what I think it's worth. What it DOES reflect is a greedy society that punishes you for not being uber-rich. More people than ever are losing their jobs and going you really believe it's because they're too stingy to pay what they think keeping a roof over their head is worth?

Posted by:

07 Mar 2009

Zeke - If you don't think your slummy dwelling is worth what you're paying for it, why not move out?

Isaac - Most big artists do indeed make most of their money from touring, this is because they now charge silly seat prices to make up for what they're losing in media sales. People further down the ladder of success don't have this option.

If you allow for inflation records are cheaper than they've ever been, and let's be honest, CDs sound much better than 78s (Unless you have a laser vinyl player, and if you do then you're probably stinking rich...). On the other hand live music prices are now considerably more expensive than they've ever been.

It's a rich man's world....

Ted - History says differently. In the 50s rock'n'roll took the world by storm, in the 60s it was The British Invasion, in the 70s along came punk, in the 80s along came cheap keyboards with preprogrammed sounds and rhythms on them, and that was the end of it. The rise of the internet has been mirrored by a total lack of any kind of innovation in the field of music. Not that I'm blaming the 'net, but it sure hasn't helped...

Posted by:

18 Feb 2010

Have you watched 'here's my crib' on MTV recently? The real problem is that everyone in the entertainment industry wants to be a multi-millionaire, and so albums cost us 15 euros instead of the couple of euros that they *should* be.

Where the hell did 'artists' get the idea that their music is worth so much? You can barely call them artists these days - the rubbish we get pushed by the record companies is 95% lowest-denominator, transient trash.

Why should some idiot popstar with virtually no skill earn millions (and all their record company cronies), when the average hard working person earns 20,000€? I love music (I play a couple of instruments, learnt digital recording as a hobby, and have a large cd collection) - BUT IT ISN'T WORTH MAKING THESE BOZOS INTO HEROES AND PAYING THROUGH THE TEETH FOR A BIT OF ENTERTAINMENT.

That goes for sports people too. And actors. Until the situation rights itself, people will happily download because they have no loyalty to these bogus 'stars'.

Posted by:

29 Jun 2010

I found this really great quote over the internet that applies:
"There's no way to rule innocent men. The only power government has is the power to crack down on criminals. When there aren't enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws." —Ayn Rand

I bet most of the people how have commented or are reading this article (including me) have watched videos and such on the internet. When you watch these videos, your computer downloads it temporarily, so does that make anyone an illegal downloader. If like Tal Hawkins said before me, "if they are after the money," the RIAA and MPAA sould go after the people who are "giving away" illegal copies to hundreds or thousands of people not the little guy who has downloaded only a dozen songs and/or movies. They would get a lot more money. (Sorry if it is a little long.)

Posted by:

29 Jun 2010

Before I read this, I was thinking about downloading some animes that are no longer in circulation. I can't find the series in any stores and I do not trust online servicse like eBay. So question... Is it still illegal even though a regular consumer can't buy it anymore?

Posted by:

30 Aug 2010

not sure how it breaks down for movies but the average musician get like 5 cents out of a $20 cd, the retailer gets like $3 the record company gets the rest. The RIAA says "We're suing this middle schooler on behalf of the the poor starving artist", yet the money goes to the label, not the artist... They also charge small club owners a fee for letting local bands perform cover tunes. If we could just figure out a way to bypass the labels and give the artist $5 for a cd we'd be able to buy music without going broke and te artists would actually make money for a change...

Posted by:

08 Sep 2010

What's clear from a lot of the comments here is that this is an issue because of the sort of society we live in. There is a growing body of opinion that advocates free access to ALL goods and services. Also consider this: If financial gain is the motivation, what does that say about the integrity of Art?

EDITOR'S NOTE: Ummm... "free access to ALL goods and services"??? You really don't have to think very hard or very long to see how utterly stupid that idea is. How long do you think the producers of the goods and services would continue to produce them, if they were required to give them away for free?

Posted by:

13 Jan 2011

I don't pirate because I'm not interested. However, I could care less about these industries who have ripped the people for years. Now the tables have turned and they have the audacity to be rabid?!?! What a joke!

Posted by:

20 Jun 2011

My problem with this is that you are downloading something that doesn't exist, it has no mass, you cant hold it or touch it, its not a physical object so what are you stealing? I have got letters from my ISP asking me to stop downloading from p2p networks but I know they were just being polite following their policy. No reason to shoot the messenger. Anyways there is no way to prove that you downloaded a file, cause who is to say the file you are even downloading is the file that it claims to be. There are too many varibles.

Posted by:

20 Jan 2015

The music industry loses NOTHING from people downloading free music... nothing at all. The
people doing the downloading would never spend money on music in the first place, so there isn't actually anything to lose. In fact it is a plus for the industry because those 'free downloads' are actually giving the artists exposure that they would not have otherwise. The real meat and potatoes should be in the LIVE PERFORMANCE; that is where the bulk of their income should stem from. Of course, away from all the post production editing magic, A LOT of 'artists' fall flat. Besides, how can you bust somone for accepting something offered for free? 100% of the 'guilt' belongs to the ones 'offering' the free stuff!

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