You’re ready to download that file. Stop. Are you about to invite a million-dollar lawsuit against you? Believe it or not, you could be sued into the grave just for hitting the “download” button. Millions of files are shared on the Internet every day. Some of those downloads may be illegal due to copyright infringement. Most people believe that they can’t or won’t be caught because they are “small potatoes.” It’s a high-risk, Russian-roulette, game of legal suicide where rights holders and the courts have continuously made an example of a small number of people (smaller than the total number of people illegally downloading files, that is) to attempt to educate people about copyright and copyright infringement, and to deter and scare many from infringing on copyrights.

Here’s the thing: the number of “small” cases are growing as rights holders have become more efficient at prosecuting and settling these cases. Many times a copyright holder will offer to settle with a person for less than it would cost for that person to hire a lawyer and defend him or herself. The case law is well-established, and your risk of a lawsuit or settlement demand is greater than ever. Here’s how to protect yourself.

Don’t Download Illegal Files

It may sound obvious, but downloading illegal files (where there would be copyright infringement) is a sure-fire way to get yourself into trouble with the law or the rights holders. Not downloading files, then, would be the solution to that problem. It’s sort of like when you go to the doctor, and you say, “doc, it hurts when I do this.” What does the doctor say? “Well, don’t do that then.” So obvious, yet also often overlooked.

In practice, it means that when use P2P files sharing software available from sites, like www.Vuze.com, make sure that the file you’re thinking about downloading wouldn’t infringe on copyright and can be downloaded legally. Vuze explicitly opposes the sharing of illegal and infringing files, but not all sites comply with the law.

Why Are Copyright Laws Important?

Copyright protection exists because everyone has a right to property, including intellectual property. The U.S. Constitution promotes scientific development, and protection of useful arts, through copyright laws. In fact, copyrights and patents are the only forms of intellectual property with a historical basis in the Constitution.

These laws are responsible for making sure that artists, authors, and creators can benefit from their work, but they also protect the integrity of that property – property that rightfully belongs to the copyright holder. Intellectual property is somewhat of an abstract idea.

When you own a home, you can point to it and it’s obvious what you mean by it. But, when you’re talking about intellectual property, it’s a little less clear. You can point to a book or a painting, but there’s absolutely nothing special about the paper the book is printed on, or the canvas of paints that the artist uses.

What the copyright protects, in this sense, is original expression of the artist or content creator embodied in some physical or digital form,

What’s A Copyright Protected File?

Protected files are any files that contain works of authorship that are protected by copyright. How do you know if a work is protected? Sometimes you’ll know because there will be a copyright notice somewhere on the work. But, a lack of a copyright notice does not necessarily mean that there is no copyright protection.

To qualify for protection, a work must be independently created by the author and must have at least a minimum degree of creativity. (http://www.copyright.gov/). So, works of art that lack a clear copyright designation may still be protected by the law.

This logic also applies to digital files, like music, videos, and documents. Unless you are sure that the work is in the public domain, or the copyright holder has authorized or licensed free sharing, assume it is copyright protected content that should not be shared.

Cindy Case is studying digital copyright laws as part of a legal studies course. She enjoys sharing her research and her expertise. You can find her helpful articles on various legal and technology blogs.