Sunday, February 29, 2004

File sharing & the law

Sunday, February 29, 2004

What is the law regarding the sharing of copyright protected software?

By downloading and using commercial software you haven't paid for, you are breaking the law. It is as simple as that. To use retail software legally you must first purchase a license for it.

Incidentally, all software, retail or freeware, is copyright protected material - from the moment of its conception, software is protected by federal copyright law and hence cannot be legally reproduced without first obtaining permission from the author. Clearly if a piece of software has been released as freeware by its author, you are entitled to download and use it. That said, unless it has been designated as 'open source', you cannot modify and re-release it.

In the United States the use and distribution of computer software is governed by title 17 of the copyright act, which states that the author is granted exclusive rights to reproduce and distribute his or her creation. Anyone who violates the author's exclusive rights by making their work available to the public by whatever means, for free or in exchange for payment, is breaking the law, and if caught, can be prosecuted by imprisonment or fine.

But I'm allowed to duplicate my software if I've purchased it legitimately, right?

You are legally entitled to produce a single copy for backup purposes only, but no more than this. The software can only be installed and used on a single computer if you wish to remain within the confines of the law. This aspect of the copyright act is covered in section 117.

What exactly are the penalties for distributing copyright protected software?

The first thing which is likely to happen if you are caught is that any profits made from distributing the software and/or the equipment used to make duplications will be confiscated. You are also liable for compensating the author of the copyright protected work for any losses they may have sustained up to the value of $100,000 per title. In a worst case scenario you could be forced to pay a fine anywhere up to $250,000 or be ordered to serve a prison sentence of up to 5 years.

Doesn't the law state that I'm permitted to evaluate software for up to 24 hours if I delete it afterwards?

No, this is a myth circulated by file sharing webmasters who believe they can deflect liability for serving copyright protected software to the public. This nonsense is often written into disclaimers which must be agreed to before permitting visitors to enter a site, but doesn't provide any legal protection whatsoever.

Even if you delete the software having 'test driven' it, and subsequently purchase a legitimate copy, you could still face prosecution for infringing copyright laws as defined in section 501(a) of the copyright act.

Using and distributing abandonware is OK though, isn't it?

Nope, I'm afraid not. 'Expired copyright' software doesn't exist - the same rules which apply to 'liberated' commercial software also apply to abandonware - the law doesn't differentiate between the two forms of piracy.

The people who run abandonware sites get away with distributing old software titles simply because the software producers are no longer making any money out of them and so are reluctant to press charges. Fighting piracy is an expensive business; if there are no financial gains to be made from having these sites shut down, there is little incentive to do so.

No piece of computer software on the planet has been around long enough for its copyright to have expired. Any work created after 1978 is protected under section 302 of the US copyright act for the duration of the author's life plus an additional fifty years, or for seventy years following the creation of the software under European law.

I can't be prosecuted for merely linking to commercial software stored on other people's servers, which I personally did not upload, can I?

Yes, you could. You can be held accountable for doing anything contributing to the violation of copyright laws. This includes linking to files via direct download pages, facilitating engagement in criminal acts by way of advice, writing tutorials etc, posting eDonkey hash codes on web forums and so on. Prosecuting people for committing relatively modest misdemeanors such as these was at one time totally unheard of. In more recent times, however, now that anti-piracy groups are determined to make examples of anyone from 12 year old girls sharing a handful of files to career pirates, it is becoming much more common.


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