Music and movie downloads - know the law

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There is a vast amount of entertainment available online so it's not surprising that many of us are tempted to download without paying. Whether it's music or movies thousands of files get downloaded all the time without the user paying a penny. It may be illegal but what will happen if you get found out?

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Illegal downloading has become a massive threat to the music and film industry. It is estimated that half the UK population has engaged in some sort of illegal downloading and up to 95 per cent of all songs downloaded are illegal.

Over the years the UK has built up a range of copyright laws that can be used against illegal downloaders. The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, as amended by the Copyright and Trade Marks (Offences and Enforcement) Act 2002, currently protects copyrighted materials. People who download any copyrighted material illegally could face civil action costing them thousands of pounds in damages.

If you download a movie or song and distribute it then you could be in even more hot water. Piracy and bootlegging laws mean an offender could face hefty fines or even imprisonment. Illegal downloading may also be a criminal offense if the downloader distributes the material.

Copyright offences can be serious and may result in an appearance before the magistrate. Distributing unauthorised files carries a fine of £5,000 or six months' imprisonment. More serious cases could even end up in the Crown Court. Here you could face unlimited fines or a prison sentence.

The crucial element in determining the seriousness of the offense will be whether the defendant can prove their downloads were just for personal use. If they can then they will most likely be treated more leniently.

Taking a song or film without paying for it is a breach of copyright so even small scale downloading is still illegal. Better detection and close work with ISPs has meant that the net is closing in on illegal downloaders. Stern letters have already been sent in some cases issuing threats of disconnection if the downloading doesn't stop. As a further warning to would be illegal downloaders Ofcom will have the power to release the identities of serial infringers, allowing music and film companies to sue them.

It's not all bad news though. While the movie industry wants a tough stance taken against the downloaders the music industry presents a slightly different picture. Single sales have dropped away but albums sales are up. It may be that people who download have had the opportunity to try small samples of music they would never have listened to otherwise. Because of this they may decide to go along to a concert or buy the artists work.