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Information Technology

Copyright Law

What you need to know about sharing music, movies, and more

There can be grave consequences for those who engage in illegal sharing of copyrighted material. This FAQ is meant to help you understand what is legal and what isn't.

What is Digital Rights Management and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act?

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) passed by Congress in 1998, makes it illegal to copy or share intellectual property--music, videos, games, software and other materials--without permissions.  Reed College adheres to the regulations and guidelines outline by the DMCA.

Digital Rights Management (DRM) refers to the technologies used by publishers and copyright owners to control access to and usage of digital data.  The DMCA makes it illegal to produce and distribute technology that circumvents these copy-protection methods.

Is it really illegal to share music and movies from my computer?

Yes, in most cases. More specifically, it is illegal unless you own the copyright on the work or have permission from the owner to distribute it. For the vast majority of material (e.g., anything that is for sale in stores or online) it is illegal to download or upload copies. There are a few exceptions:

  • You can legally distribute material that you have the rights to, e.g. material that you create and publish yourself.
  • If the owner (typically the creator) gives you permission to give away the material, e.g. CDs of your friend's band.
  • Streaming via iTunes is legal for music purchased from the iTunes music store.

Unauthorized downloading or uploading of copyrighted material can result in legal action against you, including lawsuits by the copyright holder or their agent (such as the RIAA). It is also a violation of Reed's computer user agreement.

Is it okay to share just within the Reed Community?

No. It's also not "safe" to break the law on campus; students at other colleges have been sued for illegal sharing that was limited to their campus. They settled out of court.

There are legal ways to download copyrighted materials, for instance from Emusic, Ruckus, the iTunes Music Store,  and many more that you can find with a quick web search. Each of these services has some kind of revenue: simple sales, monthly fees, or advertising.

But peer-to-peer sharing of copyrighted material without the copyright holder's permission is illegal, whether you are serving it up or downloading it. A useful analogy is receiving stolen property. And in most cases, the software you use to download files automatically makes your machine into a server, so you may be serving files without even realizing it.

Isn't sharing music protected as "fair use" under copyright law?

The doctrine of fair use is an important one, especially in an academic setting. But the vast majority of online music sharing is done in ways that do not constitute fair use. More information is available at the websites below.

Will Reed protect my identity or defend me if I am sued?

No. Reed will comply with legal subpoenas.

But sharing is good for the record companies -- their sales keep going up!

That's a good point to raise if you are arguing to change the governing law. But it doesn't change the current legal setting.

What risks result from sharing music online?

Copyright holders can file lawsuits against you (a tactic that they are currently pursuing aggressively). The maximum penalty can be very large and most cases are settled out of court. They can also notify Reed of infringements that are taking place on campus, and require us to intervene to stop them.  

Where can I learn more?

For more information on the DMCA, please refer to

The Music Library Association site addresses copyright issues, including fair use, in college and library settings.

For some insight into how some copyright holders view these issues, visit the sites of the Recording Industry Association of America or the Motion Picture Association of America.

The United States Copyright Office at the Library of Congress has good general information about copyright law.

There are many ideas on how current law or business practices could be changed to reduce the incentive to steal music and still reward the creators. Here's just one, from the Electronic Frontier Foundation