File Sharing

Along with playing video games, downloading music and movies are among the top online activities for Canadian youth. Using file-sharing or peer-to-peer (P2P) programs, as well as “digital locker” services, kids can search for and then download free music, movies, video games or software – which in most cases are copyright protected.

How does it work?

With file sharing systems, several computers can communicate directly through a network to trade files: most often music in MP3 format, but movie files are gaining in popularity (in the first week after its release in 2009, the blockbuster film Avatar was illegally downloaded one million times).

Is file sharing legal?

Downloading copyrighted material without paying for it, by any means including file sharing, is illegal. In Canada, the Copyright Act protects all intellectual property and forbids unauthorized copying. However, it is not illegal to upload files to which you own the copyright (music you have performed and recorded, for example) or to download files with the copyright owner’s permission. Many people use digital “locker” services such as Dropbox to create backups of their files or to share them with collaborators.  

Users who share copyrighted files without permission break the law in two ways:

  • by copying files for other users: Under the Copyright Act, private copying of copyrighted music is legal: this is limited to making a single copy of a musical work for your own personal use. There is no private copying exception for movies, software, or non-musical sound recordings. File sharing does not count as “private copying” because you are making a copy of something for someone else’s use when you make it available to be downloaded.
  • by sharing with other users: The basic principle of “file sharing” is sharing; other people provide us with access to their files and we give others access to ours. However, it is a violation of the Copyright Act to open to public access works that are protected by copyright because the copies are no longer “strictly for personal use”. Damages for this type of offence are between $500 and $20,000.

“Notice and notice”

Due to constant advances in new technologies, the Copyright Act is left with a number of grey areas when dealing with digital media. Faced with a loss of sales due to file sharing, industry associations are trying to find solutions themselves, and have attempted to crack down on illegal file sharing. One solution that has been adopted by Canadian Internet Service Providers is a “notice and notice” policy, where customers are sent notices to remove infringing materials when service providers become aware of downloading activities from file-sharing sites. Michael Geist, an expert in Internet law at the University of Ottawa, has noted that although this process doesn’t have any significant legal weight, it’s a better approach than that taken in other countries, like the United States, where Internet Service Providers are expected to take down possibly infringing material themselves.

The Copyright Act of Canada is in the process of being reviewed. The Copyright Board of Canada website will provide you with information on the most recent developments.

Talking to kids about file sharing

In file-sharing sites, you don’t share only files…

Some of the most popular downloads come bundled with dangerous and pesky parasites. These are called “malware”. They may do things such as automatically creating links sending the user to advertising pages and sometimes even to pornographic sites. Other kinds of malware include programs called “keyloggers,” which record and transmit anything that is typed on a keyboard, and programs that commandeer computers to send out junk e-mails or more copies of the same program.

Many people use these file-sharing sites to share pornographic images or videos that a young person could inadvertently stumble upon. Parental filters that usually block pornography don’t generally work on this type of software. Some file-sharing networks have created their own screening system and you should find out whether this applies to the one your child uses.

It’s not just a legal issue

Generally, youth are not interested in paying for products they can get for free online, so it’s important for kids to be encouraged to reflect on the effects of their actions on the artists they enjoy.

The debate surrounding downloading versus paying for music isn’t black and white – even among the artists themselves. Some are in favour of users downloading their music because it gives them free publicity for their concerts, which is where they make most of their profits. For example, the digital locker site Megaupload – which was closed down in 2012 by the U.S. government in January of 2012 on the grounds that it facilitated copyright infringement – received support from well-known musicians such as Snoop Dogg, Alicia Keys, Kanye West and Mary J. Blige, who all participated in a video promoting the site. Other musicians, though, are fervently against file-sharing as they feel it takes away from profits they could be making by selling their recorded music.

The best advice to give to kids is for them to see if an artist has made their songs available for download, either from their own website, from a pay service such as iTunes or from a site that lets musicians make their songs available for downloading. For example, the airtist website only requests that visitors view an advertisement first before downloading songs for free. As for individual singers and bands that are just starting out, they count on donations. Bandcamp lets musicians create a site from which they can either sell or give away music tracks (or both).

GNU logoIn the case of software, there are a large number of comparable free, open-source alternatives to fee-based products. Open source software which uses a GNU licence and is accompanied by the GNU logo, stands apart in that it allows users to use, copy, distribute, study, modify and improve software by making the code for these products freely accessible and copyright-cleared for sharing.

The Internet has definitely impacted the economy. By transforming paying consumers into fans of free products, it is forcing industries to invent new economic models. But the changes do not end there. The Internet has also initiated a new economy based on donations and collaboration, as we’ve seen. It is important that children understand these alternatives: their adoption or rejection of them may determine the path of the future.

There are also many sites online where users can pay to download music. Online music for sale can be found on music label or artist sites, or iTunes. You can also check with your Internet provider to see what options they offer for music downloading or streaming.

Finally, many sites have appeared that allow users to stream music. Because streaming music is not recorded to your computer, it is legal so long as the site has paid for a license or has the permission of the copyright holder. Many radio broadcasters such as the CBC have streaming services; there are also free Internet-only “radio” stations such as radio paradise, which offer programmed streams similar to terrestrial radio, and paid streaming services such as Rdio which give more options to customize what you listen to.

Tips for a positive file sharing experience

There are ways to make file sharing a positive experience.

Stick to copyright-cleared files

To avoid computer viruses, and stay on the right side of the law, stick to copyright-cleared files. Most file-sharing programs let you choose what kind of files you can search for.

Use filtered file-sharing programs to avoid viruses and explicit materials

Some file-sharing programs have their own built-in filtering systems, so it pays to experiment with different types of file-sharing software to see which ones offer the most protection.

Only use a digital locker site or your file-sharing program to exchange files

Many popular programs include instant messaging and chat services along with the file-sharing function. Choose a program that doesn’t offer these services or one that permits you to disable access to them.

Look out for “spyware” that’s included with some file-sharing programs

Spyware is software that comes bundled with some file-sharing programs. Spyware can change your home page setting, create pop-ups on your desktop and even add links to Web pages that weren’t there before.

Make sure that anti-virus software and firewalls are loaded on your computer for virus protection

When you set up your file-sharing program, set your preferences so other people can only access the files on your computer that you want them to have. (It’s a good idea to sit with your child when they’re downloading and setting up the program.)