File sharing includes distribution of digital files between users across multiple devices. The ways to share music, movies, games and other kinds of files are numerous indeed – from Peer-to-peer (P2P) networks that first appeared with Napster in 1999, to various file sharing and cloud storage services emerging today. As now everybody is virtually connected it is easy for a file to reach a huge audience, but it might be difficult to control distribution of illegal material.
Even though file sharing itself is not illegal there is a plenty of legal issues related to the content being shared. These mostly refer to copyrights infringement.
Copyrights and Copyright Infringement
Copyrights are as old as publishing and these two go hand in hand. Copyright refers to the right of a “copy” creator (creative father of an original piece of work) or a publisher to control the use of the piece that is their original property. Illegal use of a copyrighted property refers to an unauthorized reproduction of it.
Today, with so much information readily available on the Internet and all the possibilities for downloading files it is much more difficult to control the use and reproduction of material stored on the web. Social and P2P networks, forums and other online communities created optimal sharing environment. While the point of online networks is to improve collaboration and communication between people who are geographically distant they have also become an arena for illegal content distribution.
Illegal file sharing may primarily be associated with music and movie files. Even though there is a plenty of websites that allow legal download, illegal websites still exist despite strict anti-piracy measures. This had important effects on music and movie industry and many questions have been raised. While there are those who emphasize how much money entertainment companies loose because of this, there are numerous artists that support free file distribution, members of Radiohead being some of them.
Apart from copyright issue there is also the question of illegal content such as pornography that is shared or stored online. Are file sharing and cloud storage companies responsible for the content their users upload?
File Sharing and Megaupload Case
This year a lot of noise surrounded one of the file sharing pioneers Megaupload which was eventually shut down by the FBI. The founder of Megaupload Kim Dotcom and six other people associated with the company were prosecuted for copyright infringement, aiding copyright infringement and money laundering. This was the first time a file sharing company was faced with a state prosecution. Before, there were several copyright infringement charges against other companies, but those were all civil cases.
Megaupload lawyers tried to point out that it is impossible to track and monitor all the files users store in the cloud. It is not only physically difficult, but according to privacy laws in US web companies are not allowed to look at the content stored on their services. The company still got shut down, but the whole event took larger implications.
The most important question that remained was whether file sharing and cloud storage companies should be held liable for what is stored on their servers. This is a complex issue and it requires a broader research. It is reasonable to expect more of such cases in future as not even the strictest regulations could completely guarantee legal operations of online services.