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A Note On Illegal Downloading

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Marilyn McMillan, Vice President for Information Technology & CITO for NYU New York

A large percentage of people who use the Internet have downloaded music or movies. And most of the individuals who download these files - through paid services, file-sharing applications, or peer-to-peer networks - by now are aware of how prominent the issue of illegal downloading has become.

The University's stance on this issue is simple: downloading copyrighted material without permission is illegal, and you should not do it. You should also not use your computer to distribute copyrighted material without the permission of the copyright holder. Be aware: some applications for downloading music, movies and other files actually turn your computer into a server, allowing it to be used for distributing copyrighted material. If you are doing illegal downloads or distributions now or have done so, you should stop.

The music industry thus far has principally targeted those whose computers distribute illegally downloaded music, rather those who simply download. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is using the legal tools provided by the U. S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998. When a copyright complaint is received, the student responsible for the network address listed in the complaint is notified by email and sent a copy of the complaint. The student is asked to review NYU's policies, and to confirm in writing that s/he will abide by them. If the student does not respond, his/her network connection is blocked. If there are repeated incidents, the matter then is referred to the student judicial process. A range of penalties is available within the judicial process; the specific penalty depends upon the result of that process and may include suspension of account privileges. If the RIAA believes you are involved in illegal downloads or distribution of copyrighted materials and submits a valid subpoena to NYU seeking your identity, the University will comply with the subpoena and furnish your name and contact information to the RIAA's lawyers.

Federal copyright law itself includes a range of penalties, from $750-$130,000 per infringed work, or as much as $150,000 per work, if the infringement is deemed "willful". See Copyright Law of the United States of America. A claim of "fair use" can be used as a defense against a claim of infringement, see Limitations on exclusive rights: Fair use and NYU's Handbook for Use of Copyrighted Materials. There may also be criminal penalties for willful copying of a work for profit or financial gain, or if the work has a value of more than $1,000. Penalties can include a one-year jail sentence plus fines. If the value is more than $2,500, you may be sentenced to five years in jail plus fines. Criminal penalties generally apply to large-scale commercial piracy.

We know that illegal downloading of music is a widespread practice. It has become an international phenomenon, one that is hardly confined to college campuses. Its allure is clear: why would you pay for something - a song to load on your MP3 player or a movie to load on your laptop - when you can get it for free with a little exploration and few keystrokes? And why would you not share something for free with friends?

In answering those questions, the University appeals to what Abraham Lincoln once called "the better angels" of your nature and to your commitment to the culture of scholarship.

As communities of scholars and learners, research universities - such as NYU - have two primary missions: to educate students and to create knowledge. This latter mission involves the production of original scholarship and research. Accordingly it is accompanied by an enormous respect for proper recognition being given to the creator of those ideas and knowledge. In higher education, it is considered a grave act to take another's work without permission or attribution. At NYU, which also has large and renowned programs in the arts, this respect extends to the creation of new art.

Few in this community would uphold shoplifting CDs from a record store. And few would be content to see their own work - a paper, for instance, or a journal article, or a term project in a course - taken by someone else and used without permission.

Yet, in reality, that is what you do when you download copyrighted files illegally. However you may feel about the music or film industry or about their responses to piracy, when you download copyrighted files without permission, you are stealing the work of a director or a producer or an artist. It is not only wrong, it puts you at legal risk.

The Internet has brought unimaginable access to information and extraordinary flexibility and opportunities for exploration and communication. NYU wants you to take advantage of all that. But, just as you abide by certain standards of behavior for scholarship and for University life, so, too, should you abide by high standards when it comes to the intellectual property of others on the Internet.

Originally posted: March 2007. Updated: April 2010