When Is Sharing Files Illegal And How Many People Are Prosecuted?

Music and TV can be expensive. Before subscription services like Pandora, Spotify, Netflix, Hulu, and a dozen other popular providers, you had two options: pay up or download off the internet. Paying up meant spending at least a dollar for most songs — and for most of us the consequence of that was a very small library at very large cost. But downloading off the internet meant potentially breaking the law. Not everyone even knows what they’re doing is illegal. Believe it or not, the peer-to-peer sharing laws are relatively black and white. There’s not much space for interpretation in the law.

First and foremost, file sharing is legal in all fifty states. It’s only illegal when that shared material is under copyright law. Since most popular content is still under copyright law, obviously most of this activity is illegal. In most countries, downloading a movie, sharing copyrighted songs, or downloading copyrighted TV shows or programs would be considered illegal — so long as the person downloading or receiving doesn’t already own a legally purchased copy of the product in question.

Most people inquire whether or not the programs that allow people to share these files easily are legal. There’s nothing wrong with downloading or using programs like BitTorrent or the outdated Vuze. It’s how you use them that could land you in hot water.

Fines for an illegally downloaded, copied, or shared piece of copyrighted material can be steep. Considering most people who do this (and there are hundreds of millions of people who do this), that means getting caught and prosecuted can mean life-changing fines or civil liabilities. The worst case scenario is prison time, but this is extraordinarily rare.

For those caught and forced to pay the penalties, it can lead to bankruptcy. Even in the rare event it doesn’t completely financially ruin a person, they can expect wages to be garnished for years, possibly decades. A wage garnishment lawyer probably won’t be able to make a difference either, because the law is so black cut and dry (although it’s always worth a try).

The good news is this: prosecution for file sharing is rare. Once upon a time, companies would be more likely to prosecute or sue a person who was caught — but they’ve mostly realized two important facts: One, it won’t make a difference. Two, most people who grew up in the generation guilty of this crime are more likely to spend more on art anyway — which means it could actually hurt a company rather than help it. 

One of the last people to face prosecution was Jammie Thomas-Rasset, a Minnesota woman who faced a penalty of $1.5 million for sharing at least 1,700 music files. The action that cost her over a million dollars only concerned 24 of those songs. An appellate court eventually reduced the amount to $54,000 — which for most Americans would still be considered debilitating. 

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