A copyright is a form of protection, granted by the laws of the United States, to the creator of an original work of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works, to control the distribution, usually for a limited time, after the work enters the public domain.

Generally, copyright is enforced as a civil matter although some jurisdictions do apply criminal sanctions. Copyright limitations are recognized by most jurisdictions and some exceptions to the author's exclusivity of copyright are allowed giving users certain rights. However the Internet and digital media have created new and challenging tests of the copyright laws. New technologies, including peer-to-peer sharing of digital files, have prompted reinterpretations of the exceptions and a new surge in the fight for copyright protection.

Digital Music and Software

Most recently, the music industry launched a campaign to fight the illegal downloading of songs via the Internet and file sharing, peer-to-peer networks like Ares, BitTorrent, Gnutella, Limewire, and Morpheus. These networks provide the framework for users to request and receive digital transmissions of copyrighted sound recordings from other users on the network. A request is sent out over the Internet to find the requested song on another user's computer. Within seconds, that illegal file is downloaded to the requestor's desktop.

Criminal activity on these networks isn't confined to the music industry. These file-sharing networks also allow users to search for pirated (illegally copied copyright material) software packages. The software is easily downloaded along with the serial number needed to install and access the program. Videos are also being illegally copied and shared.

Risks of File Sharing

Some of the illicit networks actually seize a portion of the user's hard drive for illegally uploading and downloading files to network members around the world. It all happens once you register as a member and all of the files on your computer hard drive can be accessed. Depending upon the settings you choose everything including financial information, private data and sensitive documents become fair game. Not all users are aware of this vulnerability. The practice of using file sharing sites also invites the threat of viruses, Trojan horses, and other harmful code that may be resident in unauthorized files.

The risks involved in illegally reproducing or distributing copyrighted material are significant. It is against the law both to upload and download the copyrighted works of others without express permission to do so. It is stealing and both civil and criminal penalties are severe. Criminal penalties for first-time offenders can be as high as five years in prison and $250,000 in fines even if the offender didn't do it for monetary or financial commercial gain.

When the offender is a minor, it doesn't make the infraction any less of a crime. In fact, it may subject the minor's parents or guardians to legal action. Civil liability can extend to parents even if they are unaware that their child is stealing.

There are websites and programs from which it is legal to download digital music files for a fee, such as iTunes, Napster, and Yahoo Music, among others. Users should note that some illicit peer-to-peer networks charge a fee to upgrade to a higher version of their program. This fee should not be interpreted as payment for legal copies of the digital files. It is not, and therefore any files downloaded are done so illegally.

Massachusetts Laws Governing Copyright Infringement

M.G.L. c. 266, s. 143A: Unauthorized reproduction and transfer of sound recordings. Whoever directly or indirectly by any means, knowingly transfers or causes to be transferred any sound recorded on a phonograph record, disc, wire, tape, film, videocassette or other article on which such sound is recorded, with intent to sell, rent or transport, or cause to be sold, rented or transported, or to use or cause to be used for profit through public performance such article on which such sound is so transferred, without the consent of the owner, or whoever sells any such article with the knowledge that the sound thereon has been so transferred without the consent of the owner, shall be punished as provided in section 143E.

M.G.L. c. 266, s. 143E: Violations of Secs. 143A to 143C; punishment. Whoever violates any provision of section 143A to section 143C, inclusive, shall be punished:

(i) by imprisonment for not more than 1 year in the house of correction or by a fine of not more than $25,000, or by both such fine and imprisonment;

(ii) by imprisonment in the house of correction for not more than 2 years or by a fine of not more than $100,000, or by both such fine and imprisonment if the offense involves less than 1,000 but not less than 100 unlawful sound recordings or less the 65 but not less than 7 unlawful audio visual recordings; or

(iii) by imprisonment in state prison for not more than 5 years or by a fine of not more than $250,000, or by both such fine and imprisonment if the offense involves not less than 1,000 unlawful sound recordings or not less than 65 unlawful audio visual recordings.