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Are there penalties for illegal downloads? Chances are, you or someone you know downloads music or movies online. But just because "everybody does it" doesn't mean that it's legal.
Sometimes, of course, artists or promotional sites will offer free downloads. And if you purchase a song or movie before downloading it, then there's generally no problem.
Still, the Internet is running rampant with users who illegally download -- commonly via peer-to-peer networks like Limewire or BitTorrent, and also from friends who will pass on the goods. So how illegal is this, and what are the potential penalties?
The act of illegally downloading something falls under the Copyright Act of 1976, a federal statute that governs copyright law in the United States.
Types of works protected by copyrights include "works of authorship" such as literary works, musical works, and motion pictures, among others. Songs and movies, therefore, definitely fall within the category of works protected by copyright.
Copyright infringement occurs when the works are reproduced, republished, or used without permission from the copyright holder. This is where illegal downloading kicks in. The violation is typically enforced as a civil matter, although specific penalties vary by jurisdictions and some may apply criminal punishments.
Generally speaking, however, the most likely penalty is going to be a monetary fine for copyright infringement -- if you're caught downloading illegally, that is.
Penalties Can Add Up
Don't let out a sigh of relief just yet, though. Just because time in the slammer can usually be avoided for illegally downloading doesn't mean that you won't be paying a pretty penny for your illegal acts.
Under federal copyright law, the damages that you may owe can range from $750 to $30,000 ... per work. So if you illegally download, say, 10 songs -- doesn't seem that offensive, right? Think again, because the penalty for that can be as much as $300,000.
Furthermore, this is only according to statute. Courts may find that, depending on the specific facts of your case, you should be penalized even more harshly and be fined more. For example, a 32-year-old woman from Minnesota was found guilty of downloading 24 songs and fined $80,000 per song, for a total of $1.9 million, according to CNN.
Doesn't seem so worth it anymore, does it?