Illegal downloading in the UK has become a massive threat to the music and film industries. In 1997, 78 million singles were sold in the UK; last year, it was just 8.6m. It is estimated that half the population has engaged in some sort of nefarious downloading in the last five years.
So what is being done to stop it and what can you expect if you are caught illegally downloading music, film and TV show files? The first thing to note is that the internet is not the law-free community that its architects had intended when it was dreamt up 30 years ago.In the 1970s and 1980s, record companies were happy to turn a blind eye to the taping of albums, largely because there had to be at least one hard copy purchase before the copying could begin. That is not the case with the huge range of downloading options offered on the internet. In Britain there is an equally-dazzling raft of copyright laws that can be invoked to prosecute offenders.
The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, as amended by the Copyright and Trade Marks (Offences and Enforcement) Act 2002, currently protects copyrighted materials. People who distribute and download copyrighted recordings without permission face civil actions for potentially thousands of pounds of damages. Make no mistake: British copyright law is needlessly strict because it was born in an age that could not have envisaged the challenges of the internet. A recent survey of consumer rights’ groups found that the UK was the least consumer-friendly of 16 countries examined in the report. There is, for example, no general “fair use” exception.
Illegal downloading can also constitute a criminal offence if the downloader distributes the material. Infringement of piracy and bootlegging laws can lead to hefty fines and even imprisonment if someone is caught making copies for the purpose of selling or hiring them to others.
The penalties for copyright offences depend on seriousness, but at the higher end of the scale it can lead to an appearance before a magistrate where the sanction for distributing unauthorised files is a fine of up to £5,000 or six months’ imprisonment. The worst cases may be sent to the Crown Court, which has the power to impose an unlimited fine and up to 10 years’ imprisonment.
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