Think Before You Download: The Effects of Illegal Downloading

Illegal file sharing and downloading has been a popular and common practice among college students for close to a decade, but University students may want to think twice before they click.

Illegally downloading copyright protected work, such as music, movies and television shows, not only carries the potential for hefty monetary penalties up to $150,000 per download, but violators can also face punishment from the University. Illegally sharing or downloading files via the University’s Internet server can lead to suspension or termination from the University’s online network.

University students and employees received an e-mail from Mary Anne Nagy, Vice President of Student and Community Services, warning them about the possible penalties for infractions for illegal file sharing on Oct. 1.

The University first issued the e-mail in 2003, continue to do so “pursuant to the provisions of the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) of 2008,” according to Rhonda Rehm, assistant general counsel at the University.

The HEOA is federal legislation that largely outlines the framework for dispersing federal aid to higher education institutions, but in 2008 it included a mandate for colleges to provide “an annual disclosure to students describing copyright law and campus policies related to violating copyright law,” according

However, the annual notices and potential for substantial monetary penalties have done little to curtail college students nationwide from illegally downloading copyright-protected works.

“I’ve downloaded music before,” Tom Aiello, junior medical technology major, admits. “But I’ve never done it while on campus. Usually if I want a song, I’ll download it on my phone so I can listen to it right away, but I’ve made lists of music I wanted to pirate before.”

Aiello is not alone. A recent survey conducted by, an online news source for higher education, showed that nearly half of the college-aged students polled admitted to illegally downloading music, 1.3 billion downloads worth.

“In a sense, you can look at it like shoplifting, if you view iTunes as a shop,” Aiello said. “I don’t agree or disagree with the rules. It’s just something I do every now and then.”

Political science professor and pre-law Advisor, Gregory Bordelon, JD, warns that students who participate in illegal downloading and file sharing have little legal defense, and their practice can have an adverse effect on the market for music and movies.

“Some students might look at it in an aggregate political context think ‘little old me’ won’t be caught. A lot of that has to do with the anonymity of the internet.” Bordelon said. “But on the strict letter of the law, there’s no question it’s a violation with respect to the proper level of evidence. And realistically, if thousands or millions of people are doing this, you’re cutting into the compensation for the artists, especially ones at smaller record companies.”

The University does not actively monitor students’ computer activities, but will receive a notice from a company that suspects its copyrighted work has been shared or downloaded without permission over the University’s network.

“We act on Recording Industry Association of America and Digital Millennium Copyright Act notifications as they are received,” Dr. Edward Christensen, Vice President for Information Management, said.

Christensen continued, “We keep network logs for 180 days which allow us to track uses and access to external websites and software…We are legally obligated to work with agencies like [the Motion Picture Association of America] and RIAA to shut down these illegal file sharing activities occurring within our address space.”

The University has received notifications about illegal activity in the past, but typically fewer than 10 each year. Christensen advises that students should exercise prudence when downloading anything online to ensure they don’t risk breaking the law.

“Generally, you should assume that any music, movie, gaming software, or similar file that you obtain via the Internet is copyrighted,” Christensen said. “You will subject yourself to potential criminal and financial charges if you download and/or share those files, unless you have the permission of the copyright owner or are otherwise legally permitted to engage in such activity.”

Multiple illegal downloads and violations can compound, leaving some end users with an enormous price tag to pay for their pirated files. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court denied hearing an appeal from a woman who was ordered to pay $220,000 for illegally downloading 24 songs. A college student with a judgment that large entered against them could be set back financially for a long time, and one University student thinks such penalties should serve as a stark warning against illegally sharing files.

“There’s no point to risk it,” Jessica Adametz, a junior environmental science major, said. “To risk the punishment would be ridiculous, especially since it’s all something that we can get just by paying a little bit of money for; usually one dollar. College-aged kids already take out so much money for loans. You can’t get blood from a stone.”

Nagy encourages University students to speak up if they witness someone downloading files illegally to help them understand the reality and consequences of stealing another’s copyrighted work. “I think the best thing for a student to do is to say something to their peer about what they are doing and [ask] did they know [or] realize what they were doing was wrong,” Nagy said.