University of Vermont

Information Technology

Peer-to-Peer File Sharing and Copyright Law

Peer-to-Peer File Sharing and Copyright Law

The University of Vermont is devoted to creating, discovering, and sharing knowledge and information. UVM is also committed to taking reasonable steps to avoid misuse of its computer network, including use of the computer network to violate the Copyright Law of the United States. All students, faculty, and staff should have a basic understanding of the Copyright Law. To assist the University community in the proper use of the campus computer network, a copyright and fair use guide is available, and the Computer, Communication, and Network Technology Acceptable Use Policy has been posted on the University's web site.

Recently, there has been growing concern about the use of campus computer networks to reproduce and distribute commercial copyrighted music, movies, and software. In spite of court rulings holding that it is illegal, some people have continued to engage in so-called peer-to-peer (“P2P”) sharing of commercial copyrighted products, using software programs such as Morpheus, Limewire, Grokster, and KaZaA. This activity is unlawful.

Legal Trouble

In April, 2003, the Recording Industry Association of America filed civil suits against students at Michigan Tech, Princeton University, and Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute, seeking substantial damages for copyright infringement. Those cases were quickly settled, with each of the student defendants agreeing to pay more than $12,000 in damages.  Hundreds of suits have been filed since then, and many people, including university students, have paid thousands of dollars in settlements to the RIAA.  There is increasing pressure on universities to take action against copyright violations, especially those attributable to P2P.

Computer Trouble

Fears of lawsuits aside, peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing software is increasingly causing serious problems for users.  The most common effects are inability to go to desired Web sites, unwanted pop-ups, and a very slow computer.  Simply removing the sharing software is usually not enough to cure the problems; Spybot and similar tools are often needed to cleanse computers of the "spyware" secretly installed by P2P programs.  Solving P2P-related problems is consuming inordinate technical support time -- a sad waste of University funds and resources --  not to mention the losses suffered by computer owners.  For more information on spyware, see the April, 2003 IT Newsletter.

This Web site answers some frequently asked questions about the application of the Copyright Law to peer-to-peer file sharing.

Members of the UVM community should be aware that unauthorized distribution of copyrighted material, including unauthorized peer-to-peer file sharing, may subject them to civil and criminal liabilities.

Summary of Civil and Criminal Penalties for Violation of Federal Copyright Laws

Copyright infringement is the act of exercising, without permission or legal authority, one or more of the exclusive rights granted to the copyright owner under section 106 of the Copyright Act (Title 17 of the United States Code). These rights include the right to reproduce or distribute a copyrighted work. In the file-sharing context, downloading or uploading substantial parts of a copyrighted work without authority constitutes an infringement.

Penalties for copyright infringement include civil and criminal penalties. In general, anyone found liable for civil copyright infringement may be ordered to pay either actual damages or "statutory" damages affixed at not less than $750 and not more than $30,000 per work infringed. For "willful" infringement, a court may award up to $150,000 per work infringed. A court can, in its discretion, also assess costs and attorneys' fees. For details, see Title 17, United States Code, Sections 504, 505.

Willful copyright infringement can also result in criminal penalties, including imprisonment of up to five years and fines of up to $250,000 per offense.

For more information, please see the Web site of the U.S. Copyright Office at, especially their FAQ.

Are peer-to-peer file-sharing systems illegal?

What kinds of activities are probable violations of the Copyright Law?

What does UVM policy say about copyright infringement?

Are MP3s illegal?

How could I get caught if I violate Copyright Law or UVM policy?

How often does UVM receive "take down" notices from the recording industry or other copyright holders?

What will happen if I get caught?

But if everyone breaks the rules, how can you punish just one person?

How can I obtain MP3s and other digital files legally?

What is fair use?

How can I get more information if I still have questions about copyright?

Portions reprinted and adapted with permission of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and Dartmouth College.

Last modified November 18 2011 04:26 PM

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