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Keep it legal when you download

Article and photo by Blake Cooper

Published December 1, 2015

Blake Cooper (UB Student, Class of 2016) is originally from Canandaigua, NY. He is studying Spanish, Linguistics and Comparative Literature, and beginning work on translating an Argentinian novel into English.

If you get caught downloading illegal files on UB’s networks, chances are you’ll be enrolled in UB’s Copyright Infringement Avoidance course. But it isn’t a punishment…it’s a way to avoid a hefty fine, and better understand the more confusing points of copyright law in the U.S.

Why it matters

While many of us know the difference between legal and illegal file sharing, sometimes it’s not that simple. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the 1998 law that governs copyrights in the U.S., is 60 pages of dense legalese (if you want, read it online).

Buried amidst the jargon is the clause that states that Internet service providers, which includes UB as it provides service to you, is "safe harbor," meaning the university will not be sued, just you. This is the same for any ISP (Time Warner, Verizon, AT&T, etc.).  

If you didn’t know how this works, you’re not alone. Most U.S. citizens don’t understand the nuances of the law, and because enforcement of laws can vary wildly from country to country, UB’s roughly 5,000 international students from more than 100 countries can’t be expected to fully understand it after having just arrived in the U.S., either.

That’s one big reason why the Copyright Infringement Avoidance course exists: to give students who didn’t understand exactly how copyright law works (which, face it, is almost all of us) a second chance, before they’re subject to sometimes exorbitant fines.

Educate yourself

This chart shows Copyright Infringement Notices at UB by month since 2010.

Mike Behun is UB’s Computer Discipline Officer, and he explained how the nuances of copyright infringement can often be unclear.

“Some students believe that if they pay for something, they have the right to share it,” Mike said. “Other students also subscribe to services they think are legal, services that maybe even represent themselves that way, so that’s another point of confusion.”

The Copyright Infringement Avoidance course is designed in part to shine light on some of these nuances. And going the education route seems to be effective.

“The majority of violations occur at the beginning of the semester,” Mike explained. “Many new students might not understand the seriousness of illegal file sharing and downloading.”

But, according to Mike, once the notices go out, the number of violations always drops. Also, Mike reports that on average, the number of violations has dropped each year for the past five years.

“Thankfully, most students address the issue quickly,” Mike said. “Multiple violations lead to a judicial hearing with the university, and we’d always prefer to educate rather than discipline.”