Is 'illegal downloading' an actual crime in the UK?
June 27, 2014 2:00 PM   Subscribe

I live in the US and have followed the RIAA/MPAA suits closely. Over the years I have heard British news agencies report such-and-such as being charged with illegal downloading and wondered if that were even possible.

I had heard a few American news agencies use the term also and suspect it is a misunderstanding of how file-sharing works (whereas the illegality is actually the uploading, not the downloading), but have been at a loss to determine whether downloading is actually illegal in the UK.

In most, if not all, of the cases in the US in which the MPAA/RIAA filed suit against individuals, file sharing charges specifically rested upon the act of (re-)distribution, and never solely on the action of simply downloading. That is, no one was penalized for the act of mere receipt of files, but were only penalized if their act included sending, making available, or otherwise actually distributing files -- meaning illegal downloading is not actually a thing and instead should be more accurately termed illegal uploading.

My question is whether, in fact, it actually is possible to illegally download (as opposed to upload) files in the UK? I've looked thru an amount of British law data sufficient to make my eyes cross for me, but I'm so disconnected from the general legal system there in general that I wouldn't have very good context to begin with. Is there a straight answer?
posted by Quarter Pincher to Law & Government (4 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
This doesn't illuminate the UK half of things and IANAL (etc), but a quick scan of the Wikipedia page on BMG Music v. Gonzales appears to indicate that "illegal downloading" is a thing in the US (or at least something like "infringing on copyright by downloading copyrighted materials without permission" is a thing).

I didn't spot an equivalent case in the UK, but the Wikipedia page on "Legal aspects of file sharing" might help you find useful resources for a variety of countries including the US and UK.
posted by jdherg at 2:34 PM on June 27, 2014

There are things that are legal violations to do that are not criminal, including probably the majority of US violations of copyright law. If it's a company filing suit, though, it's not a criminal case. Also, the fact that a company may choose to pursue some copyright violations and not others doesn't mean those things are not copyright violations. But I'm not sure of the UK specifics, just trying to clarify some things about your understanding of the US situation. Downloading is lower-risk, but that doesn't mean it's not a copyright violation.
posted by Sequence at 2:43 PM on June 27, 2014

You need to separate "illegal" from "criminal". Downloading without a licence is illegal (you have no right to reproduce somebody else's intellectual property without permission), but not necessarily criminal. FindLaw UK suggests only large scale distribution is a criminal offence in the UK:
It is also possible for a person to face criminal prosecution for copyright infringement, but the copyright statutes in the UK in effect limit the offence to the large-scale distribution of pirated material for financial gain. An individual who occasionally downloads songs via a peer-to-peer sharing site is unlikely to face criminal liability…

Civil liability, on the other hand, is a distinct possibility. Copyright holders frequently seek to identify and obtain compensation from individuals who download copyright material in a way that infringes the copyright. … Ordinarily the lawyers' letters demand a sum of money as compensation for the copyright infringement.
posted by robcorr at 6:06 PM on June 27, 2014

Response by poster: The reproduction is an action performed by the distributing server, not the recipient, and I'm not sure how it could be determined that the copier is the same as the recipient. The downloader is not reproducing the material -- the distributor/uploader is.

I have researched the American cases, by even emailing the EFF asking which cases actually resulted in charges (turns out there were only two, whereas the others were settled out of court), and both of them initially made accusations of so-called illegal downloading, but in the penalty portion, only charges of redistribution were penalized.. never the downloading portions.

I theorize that in the US, copyright holders have only pursued compensation from people who distributed the material illegally, instead of those who are recipients of illegally-distributed material. If the lawyer team responsible for the RIAA/MPAA cases were as credible as they needed to be, why didn't they pursue anyone who merely downloaded, but strictly those who downloaded and uploaded?
posted by Quarter Pincher at 4:14 PM on July 12, 2014

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