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Respecting Copyright

Copyrighted music, film, video, and game files:  Are they illegal to have on your computer?

Guard against illegal use of copyrighted materials

Tools built to make use of the Internet easier have created special concerns for the holders of copyright. While it takes time and energy for someone to photocopy all the pages of a book, it takes scarcely any time for someone to download an album of music, a feature film, an episode of a television show, or a computer game. Sometimes, because it is easy to download copyrighted material, it is tempting to believe it is legal to do so.
But it is legal only if the material being downloaded is in the public domain, if the copyright holder has given you permission to make a copy of the material, or if you are making copies for purposes of criticism, comment, news reporting, scholarly or instructional purposes such that the “fair use” exception under federal copyright law applies. The University’s “fair use” guidelines are available at:

However, most contemporary music, film, television shows, computer games, and computer software are not likely to be in the public domain. Nor is it likely that downloading such materials in their entirety for entertainment purposes without permission from the rights-holder will meet the “fair use” criteria.

Therefore, if you do not know whether material is copyrighted or not, assume that it is, and proceed accordingly.

What if I own legal copies of the material?

Even if you have legally obtained copies of copyrighted materials on your computer, you must be careful to protect those copies against unauthorized copying by others.

In particular, file sharing technologies such as BitTorrent and so-called "private" sharing networks (to the extent you have reason to use such technologies for legitimate purposes) should be used responsibly and with great care to ensure that copyrighted materials are not being made available for copying by others not legally entitled to do so. Indeed, failure to restrict unauthorized access to copyrighted materials stored on your computer may constitute contributory infringement under federal copyright law.

What is legal to download?

Some material is in the public domain, and is available through web or file transfer sites maintained for that purpose. Some recording artists and some television studios provide streaming versions of performances for your viewing or listening. is one site that offers streaming of music by various artists. And some performers do give permission to copy and share some of their work, for example, composer and singer Janis Ian:

The recording industry publishes a website which includes pointers to sources of legal music on the Internet:

The Motion Picture Association of America also has an educational website regarding copyright:

EDUCAUSE publishes a comprehensive list of legal sources of online content:

For general information about copyright, the website of the U.S. Copyright office can be helpful:

How will the rights-holder know?

The music industry, the film and television industry, and organizations representing software manufacturers and firms creating computer games, have become increasingly concerned about copyright infringement via the Internet, and have pursued the infringers - sometimes filing lawsuits against the individuals. Other kinds of copyrighted materials also are of concern.

The University has received infringement complaints in the past regarding books (including the latest JK Rowling titles), talking books, still photographs, satellite images, web page background designs, and illustrations copied from others’ web pages.

Just as some Princetonians search the Internet for music, films, or other material they would like, the rights-holders or their agents often search the Internet for computers that are holding and/or distributing unauthorized copies. When rights-holders find an unauthorized copy of a work, they often file an infringement complaint with the service provider. Sometimes, they file a lawsuit. And under some circumstances, they may file criminal charges.

Princeton University is the service provider for its students, faculty and staff, and has received many infringement complaints over the past few years. Unless these complaints are addressed promptly, the University may also be held liable for infringement. So if you use the University network to make illegal copies, or if you fail to protect legally obtained copies on your computer, you put yourself and the University at risk. 

What happens if I get caught?

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 than $30,000 per work infringed. For “willful” infringement, a court may award up to $150,000 per work infringed. A court can, in its discretion, also assess costs and attorney’s fees. For details see Title 17, United States Code, Sections 504, 505.

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.

Violation of federal copyright law is also a violation of University regulations and will be reported to appropriate disciplinary authorities. Princeton students may receive a Dean’s Warning, disciplinary probation, or other, even more serious, penalty as a result of infringement. University policy also requires that loss of computing and network privileges be considered as part of the penalty in cases of repeated infringement.
Does OIT scan my computer for illegal files?

Although most campus copyright infringement is revealed when the University receives complaints from the rights-holder or agent, some unauthorized service of music, films, television, computer games, and proprietary software has been discovered by OIT simply because of the network performance problems caused by the traffic, particularly (but not exclusively) in the Dormnet part of the network.

In such cases, OIT does not peruse files, but makes inferences which it reports to the appropriate disciplinary authority, while notifying the student of the potential disciplinary and legal action. As a general matter, Princeton University is committed to protection of privacy, unless intrusion is warranted, and does not actively monitor its computing network for purposes of seeking out infringing activity on the part of its users. Further, the language of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act makes it clear that the service provider is not expected to be aware of content carried through its services, only to be properly responsive when alleged infringement is reported.

The University’s core IT policy document can be found online at:

The University’s ‘Rights, Rules, Responsibilities’ can be found online at:

Please be aware OIT cannot knowingly assist you in illegal activity, such as making unauthorized copies or sharing copyrighted materials without authorization. To do so would be to participate in violating federal law, and in acting as agents of the University, Help Desk, Solutions Center, and other OIT staff are forbidden to do so.


For a printable version of the 'Respecting Copyright' publication, and other OIT publications, visit the publications pages of the OIT website at  Princeton University departments and offices should feel free to print this OIT publication and distribute it as needed to support copyright laws.  This information is also available online, in the OIT Knowledgebase, KB solution 9407.