Copyright and Illegal Online Content

I recently received a call from a physician friend who told me about a website where our children could view current Hollywood movies that are still showing in theatres.  My friend went on and on about how terrific it was and how she no longer had to take her kids to the movies.  I, of course, removed my motherhood and friend hat and became the copyright lawyer I usually reserve for my office, and I shyly (in the name of friendship) said that the site did not sound legal.  “What do you mean?” my friend asked.  “It must be legal,” she told me, “because it is on the internet.”  While still on the phone, I went to the site.  It was fairly generic looking, not really in Hollywood style, had no mentions of producers or studios, no copyright information to read, no identifying information as to its owners or country in which it was based, and so on.  To me, it was obviously illegal.  Although my friend continued to insist it was fine, a few weeks later she told me that the site was no longer accessible.

Investigating Legality

Somewhere between obviously illegal and obviously legal lies a whole slew of online content that we access, download, and share.  What is the responsibility of the casual internet user in investigating the legality of a website or blog or other online space?  Is it the user’s business at all, or should the user just presume that copyright holders are online and policing postings of their own content?  I am not referring to the liability of a person or the legal consequences for unauthorized use of protected content, but rather to the common sense and ethical perspectives.  Sometimes it is difficult for me to remove my copyright hat and act like a “regular” citizen.  I see a movie online and instinctively my radar activates as I consider whether the site is a legal one.  I know that a movie on a DVD for sale in an outdoor market in Guatemala City is more likely an illegal than legal copy.  And that purses and watches and other goods sold on streets throughout Canada and the U.S. are generally violating the trademarks of their owners.

How often do you and others think about the origin or legality of content you access or purchase?  With digital copyright issues frequently in the mainstream press, the average person is probably more aware of and knowledgeable about copyright law than ever before.  How do people approach this issue?  If you have teenagers, do you discuss the issue of peer-to-peer file sharing and the illegal downloading of music or movies?  Do you set a good example for your kids?  You certainly would not steal from the local convenience store, but if you have a library of illegally downloaded music, what are you communicating to your children about the importance of copyright or of following the law?

Is downloading an unauthorized song similar to jay walking?  Does the occasional watching of an illegal copy of a movie online seem okay?  Would you ever walk out of a library without signing out a physical book?

This article is based on the Editorial in Volume 2011, Issue 1 of The Copyright & New Media Law Newsletter.

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