HARLEY HAHN'S USENET CENTER
File Sharing Tutorial
Is file sharing legal? It depends on what you are sharing and where you are (laws vary from one country to another). With respect to Usenet, the short answer is that a lot of file sharing is legal, but (probably) most of it is not. However, this is an important question, and a short answer isn't really good enough — after all, I want you to understand what you are doing — so let's take a few minutes and discuss the details.
Whether or not file sharing is legal depends on who owns the content of the file and how they choose to exercise their ownership rights. The most important concept involved is that of copyright, so let's start with that.
A COPYRIGHT is a form of protection granted by law for original creations that are expressed in a tangible manner.
That's a mouthful, so let's take it apart. Whenever anything is created and written down or recorded, a copyright comes into existence instantly and is vested automatically with the creator. For example, let's say you write a poem. The instant you express the poem in a tangible manner — say by writing it on a piece of paper or typing it into a computer file — you own the copyright.
Copyright protection holds for all manner of creations: books, stories, plays, music, novels, poetry, songs, TV shows, videos, software, architecture, maps, paintings, recordings, and so on. Although it is possible to register a copyright — and under some circumstances it might be useful to do so — it is not required by law. A copyright exists by the mere fact that a creation exists. And if you exploit someone else's creation without their permission, you are infringing upon their rights and breaking the law. This means that, in principle, it is illegal to share files containing someone else's writing, music, videos, software, and so on, without their permission.
Copyright laws vary from one country to another, so I will summarize the rules as they apply in the U.S. (The rules in most other countries, however, are similar.) In the United States, copyrights last a long time. Specifically, when a person creates something, the copyright lasts until 70 years after his or her death. After the person's death, the copyright is owned by his or her heirs. When a company creates something, the copyright lasts for 120 after the creation or 95 years after publication, whichever is shorter.
Obviously, much of the entertainment and information we read, see, and listen to is copyrighted. As such, it is not legal to to share such files. However, there is a wealth of data that can be shared legally. Specifically, this includes creative works that are in the public domain, that are allowed to be distributed for free, or that you yourself have created.
Creative work that is not protected by copyright is said to be in the PUBLIC DOMAIN. Anything in the public domain may be shared freely. This includes government works, expired works, and very old works.
Many governments have decreed that anything they create is in the public domain. In particular, works created by the United States federal government are in the public domain. Some, but not all, works created by state and municipal governments are also in the public domain.
Example: It is legal to share files containing information published by the U.S. federal government.
Creations whose copyright has expired are in the public domain.
Examples: It is legal to share files containing writing by Mark Twain, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Oscar Wilde, Jane Austin, Louis Carroll, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and so on.
Very Old Works
Anything created before the existence of copyright laws is considered to be in the public domain.
Examples: It is legal to share files containing the King James version of the Bible, or anything written by Shakespeare, Isaac Newton, or Jonathan Swift.
Similarly, all the music composed by Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach is in the public domain. You can use such music in any way you want: you can record it, perform it, publish it, share it, and make money from it. However, since recordings do have a copyright, recordings of old music are not in the public domain.
Free Distribution Allowed
There are many people and many organizations who willingly share files to which they hold the copyright. Legally, you can upload and download such files as much as you want. Indeed, many files are posted to Usenet because the copyright holders want free distribution. (This is the case with the Ubuntu version of Linux that I used as a download test in the previous section.)
You can often tell if a creative work can be shared legally by noticing how it is described. As a general rule, you can share anything described as:
• Free Software
It is also legal to share anything that is distributed using one of the following copyright licenses:
• BSD software license
Examples: It is legal to share files from Project Gutenberg (public domain books), Wikipedia (Creative Commons-licensed content), and Linux (free software).
— hint —
You can use the descriptions and license names mentioned above to help you find content that can be shared legally.
For example, if you search for "free software video games" or "open source video games" (be sure to use the quotes), you will find a wealth of sharable video games.
Similarly, you can search for "creative commons music" to find freely sharable music.
When you try it, you will be surprised by what you find. There is a lot of free music to enjoy and to share.
Your Own Creations
As we have discussed, when you create something, you automatically own the copyright to it. Thus, you are free to share anything of your own: music, writing, software, and so on.
Although this seems obvious, I want to mention it explicitly, because uploading your own files to Usenet is one way to share them with the rest of the world.
To end this section, I'm going to give you a definitive answer to the question I posed at the beginning: Is file sharing legal?
If you are uploading or downloading commercially valuable files created by someone else, what are doing is probably illegal. However, there is a lot of freely sharable content that you can enjoy and use for no cost, if you make an effort to find it.
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