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 (PDF) has been posted on the University's web site.

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.

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 US$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 the 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 Wikipedia Spyware article.

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

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 US$750 and not more than US$30,000 per work infringed. For "willful" infringement, a court may award up to US$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 US$250,000 per offense.

Additional copyright information resources include:

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?

P2P technologies have many legitimate uses. For this reason, UVM does not ban “P2P” programs from its network. We believe, however, that the primary use of P2P technology has been copying of commercial music and video files for personal enjoyment. It is that type of activity that generally violates the Copyright Law.

What kinds of activities are probable violations of Copyright Law?

Any of the following activities, if done without permission of the copyright owner:

  • Copying and sharing images, music, movies, or other copyrighted material through the use of P2P technology
  • Purchasing a CD or DVD and then making copies for others
  • Posting or plagiarizing copyrighted material on your personal webspace
  • Downloading anything of which you don't already own a copy (software, MP3s, movies, etc.)

Copyright law applies to a wide variety of works and covers much more than is listed above. If you're in doubt about a particular work, assume that it is copyrighted!

What does UVM policy say about copyright infringement?

The University of Vermont Copyright Policy (PDF) states: "Apart from its interests in avoiding liability and resulting financial penalties both for the University itself and for those in the University community, the University strongly believes that respecting copyrights and adhering to copyright law is vital to maintaining the balance between the free flow of ideas and the advancement of the public interests served by copyright law." U.S. copyright law was created to balance the rights of authors with the free exchange of ideas. The university desires to respect the rights of all authors of original material and do everything possible to follow the letter and spirit of copyright laws.

UVM's Computer and Network Use Policy (PDF) states:

  • Users agree to use the computers and network accounts only for lawful purposes which are consistent with University policies and procedures.

Unlawful use of computers or network accounts includes, but is not limited to, defamation; obscenity; discrimination; violation of copyrights, trademarks and/or licenses; and/or violation of other rights arising under the law.

  • Each user is responsible for all information s/he accesses, makes available, or distributes using the computer/network account.

Are MP3s illegal?

  • Some MP3s can be legally obtained through online subscription services such as RHAPSODY (see the FAQ on the following pages) or from sites, like iTunes, that are officially permitted by the copyright holders to offer certain MP3 downloads. Some are copyright free. Most MP3s available for "free" don't fall into either category.
  • MP3 files are completely legal, but it's illegal to make or distribute MP3s of music recordings that you don't already own, or which you haven't obtained permission to reproduce from the copyright owner.
  • In almost all cases, sharing MP3s over the campus network is also illegal.
  • United States copyright law allows you to create MP3s only for your personal use and only of songs to which you already have rights. You can make MP3s only of songs for which you already own the CD or tape. And personal use means for you alone - you can't make copies and give or sell them to other people.
  • Everything said here about MP3 files applies equally to music, pictures, and videos in other formats, such as AAC and AVI.

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

  • UVM system administrators do not routinely police our network for illegal activity, but they must respond to formal legal complaints they receive. Also, if your computer begins to consume excessive network resources, Enterprise Technology Services will investigate your network activities to keep the network operating smoothly.
  • Organizations like the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) frequently police file-sharing programs for copyrighted material belonging to the artists they represent.
  • Some people are under the impression that their activity on the Internet is largely anonymous or untraceable, but this is untrue. Almost all your activity on the Internet is logged on many of the computer systems you use, and while these logs usually are not inspected, they certainly can be used to confirm or implicate you in illegal activity.
  • Copyright holders file subpoenas to learn the identity of people illegally sharing or copying protected material.  The University is obligated to comply with legally valid subpoenas, and cannot shield students and others from exposure.

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

In an average month, UVM receives about 21 notices through our copyright infringement email. Enterprise Technology Services forwards these notices to the individuals whose computers are involved and asks them to discontinue the infringing activity. Most people comply promptly.

What will happen if I get caught?

Violation of the Copyright Law can have serious consequences:

  1. University Disciplinary Action: Copyright infringement can subject a student to disciplinary action under the UVM Code since violation of law or University policy is grounds for discipline. First offenses will result in a notice from Computing and Information Technology, copied to the Office of Judicial Affairs, to cease illegal activity. Failure to comply, or further incidents of infringement, will result in a referral to Judicial Affairs for disciplinary action. Sanctions may include suspension of network access (meaning that you may not be able to send or receive email or go online), probation, an official letter of sanction in your University disciplinary record, or, in very serious cases, suspension or expulsion. These outcomes might prove harmful to your future job prospects or academic pursuits since many employers and graduate and professional schools require you to disclose University disciplinary action.  Employees are subject to discipline that can result in job termination.
  2. If you can't readily be contacted after a complaint, or if you do not respond, your network access will be suspended.
  3. Civil Liability: Persons found to have infringed may be held liable for substantial damages and attorneys' fees. The law entitles a plaintiff to seek statutory damages of US$150,000 for each act of willful infringement. In the cases filed by the RIAA against students at Princeton, RPI, and Michigan Tech, the recording industry sued for damages of US$150,000 for each recording infringed.
  4. Criminal Liability: Copyright infringement also carries criminal penalties under the federal No Electronic Theft Act. Depending on the number and value of the products exchanged, penalties for a first offense may be as high as three years in prison and a fine of US$250,000. UVM is not the police; however, UVM will cooperate with the law enforcement agencies when required.

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

  • Just because the government, or a company that sues you, or the Office of Judicial Affairs, cannot administer sanctions equally does not mean that they cannot administer them at all. As with speeding tickets, "everyone else was doing it" will not satisfy an enforcement officer or provide an excuse for illegal behavior.
  • Pleading ignorance of these rules or the applicable laws is also equally useless in an enforcement situation, so educate yourself before you decide to break the law.
  • You should recognize that violating the Copyright Law or UVM's policies concerning copyright are significant risks that you may regret.

How can I obtain MP3s and other digital files legally?

Lots of music can be legally obtained through online subscription services or from sites officially permitted by the copyright holders to offer downloads.

What is fair use?

You may have heard of "fair use." It is discussed in the Copyright Act. Fair use is a concept that allows the use of limited portions of a copyrighted work, without the permission of the copyright owner, for purposes such as scholarship, research, and criticism. Fair use does not mean that if you think it's fair that you should be able to use a work then it's okay. Rather, whether a particular use of copyrighted material is fair use must be judged according to the four criteria in the Copyright Act:

  1. Purpose and character of the use (why do you want to use it?)
  2. Nature of the copyrighted work (what kind of work is it?)
  3. Amount and substantiality used (how much do you want to copy?)
  4. Effect on the potential market for or value of the work (will your copying contribute to decreasing the value or demand for the work?)

For example, it's fine to quote from a book when writing about it, but it's not okay to reproduce the entire book.

Unfortunately, the four factors listed above do not always provide very clear guidance. Fair use must be determined on a case-by-case basis. Fair use can be tricky to define, so here are some links that do a pretty good job of explaining it.

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

If you still have questions about copyright and use of UVM system resources, you can send them to or access the following resources:


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