How to Stay Legal When File Sharing (P2P Programs)

The Dos and Don'ts of peer-to-peer file sharing

Are BitTorrent downloads Illegal?

If you use a bittorrent software program to download music, videos, programs, etc., then it only becomes an illegal activity if the data you are downloading (and ultimately sharing) is protected by copyright. It is this infringement of copyright (and other legal issues) that most Internet users fall foul of -- very often through a lack of knowledge rather than flouting the law with intent.

Laws can vary from country-to-country but most have copyright laws that you have to respect so you don't run the risk of getting sued (in the United States record companies normally go via the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America).

The good news is that by using a certain amount of common sense, coupled with the information in this article, you'll go a long way to staying safe while using file sharing networks on the Internet.

The Do's

Unfortunately, a lot of files that are available on Bittorrent sites are illegally shared by users, but by following these simple set of rules, you'll be staying on the right side of the law.

  • Legal BitTorrent Sites - If possible try and use only legal BitTorrent networks for file sharing. Using these will ensure that you are only downloading and sharing content that is legal.
  • Choose Content Carefully - If you need to use other popular P2P sites that also contain illegally distributed material, then carefully select only the torrents that are free from copyright -- to complicate matters, it's not always obvious to know whether a file is illegally shared and so always heed on the side of caution if in doubt. Files that are covered by the Creative Commons License (CCL) for example are usually cleared for distribution -- again, always check the individual user license agreement (if available) to be safe.
  • Keep Your P2P Client's Shared Folder Legal - When sharing files on the Internet, be sure that the folder(s) on your hard drive (used by your P2P program) don't contain copyrighted material. You may have for example, inadvertently placed legally purchased songs (from the iTunes Store for example) in the wrong folder. This content would then be accidentally shared with millions of people making you liable for prosecution due to copyright infringement. Therefore, it's a good idea to regularly check this very important area of your hard drive just to make sure you aren't distributing anything you shouldn't.

    The Dont's

    It can be confusing trying to work out what is legal or illegal when using BitTorrent networks. This part of the guide points out definite NOT's when it comes to file sharing on the Internet.

    • Don't Download Music Ripped From a CD by Someone Else - Just because someone else has ripped an original music CD and made it available for download, doesn't make you immune from being sued. Files that are distributed on P2P networks are usually split up into many fragments in order to increase download and upload speed. As soon as you start downloading and uploading these file fragments with others, you are illegally distributing -- whether or not you eventually get the whole CD.
    • Never Assume Files are Copyright-free - An absence of a copyright notice doesn't mean that it is OK to download and share files. It is always best to be cautious in situations like this and either find out what type of license the song, video, program, etc., has -- freeware, CCL, Open Source are examples that are usually OK to distribute.
    • Don't Make your original CD rips available to Others - Even though not expressly permitted by copyright holders, it's generally OK to rip a legitimate original CD that you have purchased to make a single digital copy to use for your own private use -- e.g. MP3s on your computer, PMP, MP3 player, etc. However, ensure you don't store these CD rips in a folder that is shared via your P2P program.

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