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Policies: Digital Millennium Copyright Act

File-sharing and copyright law: How it affects you

In light of recent law suits filed against college students for operating file-sharing servers, many questions have been raised about the legal obligations of UT Dallas and the users of its network with regard to file-sharing and copyrighted materials. Here are some answers to your questions about file-sharing, copyright law, and university policies and practices.  

Frequently Asked Questions

What is "file-sharing" and why is this such a hot topic?
How does copyright law work and what is the DMCA?
Who's complaining?
What are my obligations under the law, and what are the legal risks?
What are UT Dallas obligations under the law?
What is UT Dallas policy on illegal file-sharing?
What can I expect if I do continue to share illegal files?
How can I get caught if I violate copyright laws or UT Dallas policy?
What if I want to challenge the removal of files?
Does UT Dallas search its network for illegal files?
What can I do to help? How can I avoid problems with this?
How can I obtain digital files legally?
How can I share digital files legally?

Q. What is "file-sharing" and why is this such a hot topic?

A. File-sharing is the process of exchanging files over the Internet. While some of the uses of file-sharing are completely legal and protected under current laws, the recent controversy has erupted over the illegal sharing of copyrighted materials, usually music (MP3) or video files. The most common forms this file-sharing occurs in are: running an FTP server or using an FTP program, utilizing Internet Relay Chat (IRC), and using Peer-to-Peer (P2P) programs such as Kazaa (which uses the FastTrack protocol) or LimeWire (which uses the Gnutella protocol). Most P2P usage (which comprises a significant fraction of all file-sharing) is against the law because it involves the sharing of copyrighted materials (and, of course, the people sharing the files do not own the copyrights).

Indeed most music and movie files that people have on their computers are copyrighted, and cannot be shared without the permission of the copyright holder. There are, however, some works that can be shared freely, for example live recordings of the Dave Matthews Band, or songs by local bands that have freely released their work. Of course, there are untold other files beyond music and film that could be shared, many of them legally.

The controversy over file-sharing and copyright has been flaring since the appearance of Napster in 1999, but more recently, four students at three educational institutions were recently sued by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) for running servers expressly for the transfer of illegal files. The four students have agreed to pay damages ranging from $12,000 to $17,500 (the settlement was announced on May 1, 2003). The Recording Industry Association of America filed 261 lawsuits against file sharers across the country on Monday, September 8, 2003.  Fourteen of those were filed in U.S. District Court in Dallas, Texas.  This and other legal action raise very real concerns about the legal rights and responsibilities of those who participate in file-sharing and their Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Because the RIAA's enforcement efforts regarding file-sharing have focused on them, students and the universities that provide their Internet connections have high stakes in the debate.

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Q. How does copyright law work and what is the DMCA?

A. Original compositions are copyrighted for a certain period of time, including such mundane works as the papers you write for class. The copyright of a work gives the holder a monopoly on reproduction, distribution, and display of that work. When you buy or are given a copyrighted work, you get limited use of it, but not the right to distribute it. So, you can listen to your CD, read your book, and watch your movie, and even lend the original to a friend, but you can't give a copy to your friend without permission from (and generally payment to) the copyright holder. You can play a recent song on the piano (assuming you know how), but you can't perform it for an audience without permission.

There are certain limitations to copyright, most notably "fair use," which allows you to use a small portion of a work in an academic setting. So, you can legally quote a copyrighted work in a paper you write, assuming you give credit to the source. Of course this summary of copyright law is a simplification, and not a legal document. For the details, see the U.S. Copyright Office.

DMCA stands for Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Passed in 1998, the DMCA provides "limitations for service provider liability relating to material online" and specifically contains a section that stipulates a university's responsibilities as an ISP. In other words, the DMCA tells UT Dallas what it can and cannot do with respect to facilitating the transfer of files. The University as a service provider can give its users the connections they need to transfer files, but if any illegal activity is detected, the University must guarantee that the transfers have ceased. The DMCA holds the University liable if illegal file transfers persist but limits the University's liability if it cooperates fully with every aspect of the law.

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Q. Who's complaining?

A. Currently, most complaints are coming from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), and companies that belong to those organizations (such as individual record companies or movie studios). They claim financial damages, in the form of billions of dollars in lost revenues from file-sharing activity. The RIAA and MPAA often hire other companies, such as MediaForce, to log in to Kazaa, Morpheus, Grokster, eDonkey or Limewire in order to find the IP addresses (identifiers for computers or devices on a network) of computers sharing specific illegal files. Once an IP address has been logged, the ISP can be tracked down and notified that the computer (and presumably the computer's owner/user) is sharing an illegal file. This notification is called a "complaint," and the majority of these complaints now come from movie companies and the MPAA, along with record companies and the RIAA.

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Q. What are my obligations under the law, and what are the legal risks?

A. A. Essentially, the law stipulates that copyright infringement is the act of exercising, without permission or legal authority, one or more of the exclusive rights granted to the copyright owner under section 106 of the Copyright Act(Title 17 of the US Code). These rights include the right to reproduce or distribute a copyrighted work. In the file-sharing context, downloading or uploading substantial parts of a copyrighted work without authority constitutes an infringement.

Thus far, legal action has focused around sharing. Service providers such as UT Dallas are protected from such legal liability, provided they comply with the DMCA. There is no such protection for the alleged violators.

Penalties for copyright infringement include civil and criminal penalties. In general, anyone found liable for civil copyright infringement may be ordered to pay either actual damages or 'statutory' damages affixed at not less than $750 and not more thay $30,000 per work infringed. For 'willful' infringement, a court may award up to $150,000 per work infringed per work infringed. A court can, in its discretion, also assess costs and attorneys' fees.

Willful copyright infringement can also result in criminal penalties, including imprisonment of up to five years and fines of up to $250,000 per offense. Students and employees who violate copyright laws may be subject to the appropriate disciplinary process

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Q. What are UT Dallas obligations under the law?

A. UT Dallas must designate an individual and group to handle the complaints it receives--here, it is, Nate Howe, Director of Information Security. The Information Security Office must deal with each complaint it receives in an "expedient" manner. While UT Dallas is not obligated to terminate accounts, it is obligated to stop the sharing of the specified file(s). Since those in Information Security cannot remove the material themselves, their agreed-upon practice is to give the student enough time to remove the material himself. In every case, UT Dallas obligation is to stop the alleged violation.

UT Dallas must also comply with any subpoenas issued by copyright holders requesting the identity of alleged copyright infringers.

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Q. What is UT Dallas policy on illegal file-sharing?

A. UT Dallas Copyright Policy provides that "educational institutions are not exempt from legislation covering copyrights. The University's policy is to respect the copyright protections given under Federal law, and to adhere to the conditions of the license agreement." The University will comply fully with all facets of the law.

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Q. What can I expect if I share illegal files?

A. If you have a complaint filed against you with Information Security here at UT Dallas, they will contact you by email. This email will contain the details of your alleged infraction: the accusing party, the name of the alleged illegal file, and other technical information. After this email has been sent out, you will have no more than 5 days to respond that you have removed the file from your computer--if security does not receive this response within the allotted time, your Internet connection will be turned off. If your connection is turned off, it can be turned on after you contact Security and verified that the material has been removed from your computer. Students who do not respond will be referred to the Dean of Students.  Others will be referred to the appropriate University Administrator.  If there is a confirmed second complaint against you, your account access can be terminated for a period to be determined by the University.

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Q. How can I get caught if I violate copyright law or UT Dallas policy?

A. Organizations like RIAA frequently police file-sharing programs for copyrighted materials belonging to the artists they represent. Some students are under the misimpression that their activity on the Internet is largely anonymous and untraceable. On the contrary, much of your Internet activity is logged on the computer systems you use and these logs can be used to confirm or implicate you in illegal activity. According to recent legal rulings, the RIAA or other copyright holders can cause subpoenas to be issued that would force UT Dallas to reveal your identity.

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Q. What if I want to challenge the removal of files?

A. You can challenge the removal of files with a "counterclaim." A counterclaim is a user's response to an accusation made by a company or person. If the accusation is false, a user has every right to contest it. One of the major drawbacks of filing a counterclaim under the DMCA is that it links an IP address, just a number to identify a computer or device on the network, with an actual person and name. Through network connection registration, UT Dallas is able to readily associate an IP address with a specific person, and the original complaint is usually only filed against the IP address. You must identify yourself in filing a counterclaim and it can prove dangerous to associate your name with an alleged violation of the law. Note, however, that under recent court rulings, copyright holders can subpoena the identity of alleged violators directly, irrespective of their filing a counterclaim. In any case it's best to seek legal advice before filing a counterclaim.

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Q. Does UT Dallas search its network for illegal files?

A. UT Dallas does not currently search for illegal files, as some universities do.

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Q. What can I do to help? How can I avoid problems with this?

A. The simplest way to avoid problems is to stop sharing illegal files. Students often fail to recognize that sharing copyrighted material is, in fact, breaking the law, and that it can lead to serious consequences. If you are using a P2P application, and don't have files that you can legally share, configure it not to allow uploads to other users. Here are some configuration tips. Most importantly, many P2P applications keep running even after you quit, unless you explicitly tell them to disconnect. Disconnect your program from its network whenever you can, and quit it when you're not using it.  Some viruses reconfigure P2P to allow uploads to other users.  Install the McAfee Virus Package (it is free), scan your system on a regular basis for viruses and keep your operating system patched. 

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Q. How can I obtain digital files legally?

A. MP3s can be legally obtained through online subscription services or from sites officially permitted by the copyright holders to offer certain MP3 downloads. Some of the "pay for play" services from which MP3s can be legally obtained are:

Apple iTunes Music Store
Pressplay Rhapsody

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Q. How can I share digital files legally?

A. MP3s can be legally obtained through online subscription services or from sites officially permitted by the copyright holders to offer certain MP3 downloads. A list of alternatives to illegal downloading can be found at

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