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Advice on Peer-to-Peer Filesharing

Peer-to-peer filesharing is a term used to describe when your computer is sharing files such as music and/or videos to other personal computers. It is quite simple; it seems like you can get things for free; it seems like everyone is doing it.

How can it be wrong? Well, it may be. Peer-to-peer filesharing and the programs that do it have some serious problems.

  • Often the files that are shared are copyrighted and thus you are responsible for the illegal distribution of copyrighted materials. It is not uncommon for the College to receive official complaints about specific computers which are illegally distributing copyrighted materials. For important information about one of the more aggressive entities fighting copyright infringement, see:
          RIAA and copyright infringement
    Copyright infringement by any employee of the College puts both the College and the employee at risk of being named in a lawsuit.
  • It can slow down your computer.
  • It can slow down the entire College network.
    The sum of a number of users who are peer-to-peer file sharing severely impacts the College network. If you find the network slow, peer-to-peer filesharing is often the primary cause. It does not take that many abusers to do this.
  • Files you obtain may contain viruses or trojan programs that allow others to take control of your computer. This can seriously compromise the security of the College network. Any computer used for any College administrative purpose must never have had such programs installed. These programs are difficult to completely remove and pose unacceptable security risks if they have ever been installed on a computer.
  • You can be sued for a great deal of money.

Running peer-to-peer programs has adverse effects on our network and incurs risk both for the individual and for the College. Copyright holders are increasingly seeking legal action and aggressively pursuing violators.

Penalties can be severe

The Department of Education provided the following text:
Summary of Civil and Criminal Penalties for Violation of Federal Copyright Laws

Copyright infringement is the act of exercising, without permission or legal authority, one or more of the exclusive rights granted to the copyright owner under section 106 of the Copyright Act (Title 17 of the United States Code). These rights include the right to reproduce or distribute a copyrighted work. In the file-sharing context, downloading or uploading substantial parts of a copyrighted work without authority constitutes an infringement.

Penalties for copyright infringement include civil and criminal penalties. In general, anyone found liable for civil copyright infringement may be ordered to pay either actual damages or "statutory" damages affixed at not less than $750 and not more than $30,000 per work infringed. For "willful" infringement, a court may award up to $150,000 per work infringed. A court can, in its discretion, also assess costs and attorneys' fees. For details, see Title 17, United States Code, Sections 504, 505.

Willful copyright infringement can also result in criminal penalties, including imprisonment of up to five years and fines of up to $250,000 per offense.

For more information, please see the Web site of the U.S. Copyright Office at, especially their FAQ's at (in a new window or tab).


In April 2003, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) filed lawsuits against four students at the following schools: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) [two individuals], Princeton University, and Michigan Technological University. Apparently, no warnings were given before the lawsuits were filed.

In April 2004, it was announced that the music industry is suing 477 more computer users. They have continued this practice. Students at Amherst College, Mount Holyoke College, and UMass have faced such lawsuits.

In recent years, the RIAA has continued to become more aggressive in its efforts to curtail copyright infringements (see the information on "early settlement letters" below). In 2007 more than 10 Mount Holyoke College students faced RIAA lawsuits.

What you should know

The University of Chicago has some good documents about filesharing and what you should know: File sharing and legal alternatives

Sharing legally obtained material

Even if you have obtained music legally, you do not have the right to distribute that to others. Distributing legally obtained music may put you at risk of a lawsuit. (Some services such as iTunes may allow for limited redistribution; you should read license agreements carefully to be sure.)

Legal alternatives

There are legal alternatives for obtaining music, videos, and TV may be found here (opens in new window or tab).

Network access

The College network is a shared community resource. You may be removed from that resource if you do things such as:
  • Take more than your fair share of the resource.
  • Interfere with others' uses of that resource.
  • Allow those outside the College to use College resources.
  • Pose a potential security risk to the College network or computers on that network.
  • Engage in illegal activities using College resources.

Copyright violation complaints and quarantining

At Mount Holyoke College, we take copyright violations very seriously. If we receive a credible Digital Millennium Copyright Act  (DMCA) complaint for a copyright violation, the computer may be blocked from network access to prevent further copyright infringement.

If possible, you will be informed of this complaint so that you can respond appropriately (which usually amounts to removing the infringing material).

Unfortunately, if we do not know the owner of the blocked ethernet address (also called "hardware address" or "MAC address"), we would not be able to inform you of the complaint. In that case, the helpdesk can help you determine if your ethernet address is blocked and, if so, have the copyright complaint notification sent to you.

Lifting the quarantine

To have your machine reinstated for Internet access, the College must be assured that you are not illegally serving any copyrighted materials to any other computer, on campus or off. You need to reply to all recipients of the notification of copyright violation complaint, following the instructions in the complaint message.

Legal action and lawsuits

Unlike the copyright infringement complaint described above, the College may be presented with a statement of intent to file a lawsuit against an alleged copyright infringer.

The RIAA has used these statements of intent to provide a mechanism for what they call early settlement so that the individual can avoid a lawsuit. In 2007 we heard that these early settlements were $3000, but that number could change. The RIAA asserts that the cost to settle increases if they have to issue a subpoena to determine the identity the alleged copyright infringer.

If the College receives such a message, we forward the electronic letter to your College email address so that you can make an informed decision how to proceed.

The College may be served with a subpoena to reveal the identity of the individual whose computer was engaged in copyright infringement. This action is a necessary pre-condition for a lawsuit since the College does not provide the identity without a subpoena.

Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), the College is not a party to any copyright related lawsuits with students. Legally, the College is functioning as an Internet Service Provider (ISP). The College is not passing judgement on whether or not the allegations are valid.

We are very sorry, but the College is not able to provide any legal advice on how to proceed. That is up to you. It is important that you read any information you receive about such matters very carefully. If you get into this kind of situation, it is best to involve your family in discussions and consider obtaining legal advice from your own attorney.

Summary notes

  • A copyright infringement warning does not necessarily lead to a lawsuit.
  • Complying with a warning and ceasing copyright infringement does not necessarily protect you from a lawsuit for the copyright infringement. Presumably it does reduce your exposure.
  • Finally, it is not necessarily the case that you will receive a warning before a lawsuit is initiated. The first Mount Holyoke student who was sued did not receive any warning.

Do not be lulled into a sense of security because you see "everyone doing it". Whether or not others are, it is contrary to current copyright law and it can have very expensive consequences.

This page maintained by the Department of Networking. Last modified on August 12, 2014.