Illegal file-sharing and copyright infringement

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The University network environment

The University of Birmingham operates a more permissive network, in terms of firewalling and network traffic filters, than is usually found in a workplace environment.  We believe this is important to foster the kind of open academic environment and ethos we strive to have here at Birmingham.  Much of the research activity that occurs at Birmingham would be impossible without easy and open access to the many resources the internet has to offer.

Such a permissive network environment comes a great deal of trust placed on our users not to abuse this facility and to comply with the rules regarding its use.  Alongside this, many copyright holders actively police file-sharing platforms, or employ copyright agents to do so on their behalf.  These organisations will find people sharing material they own the copyright on illegally and take action to stop them sharing it.  Initially they complain to the network operators, in our case the University, and ask them to take action.  Failing this they can take legal action to identify and prosecute the individuals responsible for the illegal sharing.

Each complaint made to the University must be investigated and we have to report back to the copyright holder, or their agent, what action we have taken to prevent further legal action.  This takes up considerable staff time and resources; time and resources that could have been spent providing better services and facilities to you, our users.

Trying to protect our users

Although this blog article may sound like we are just trying to tell you not to be naughty, we are also trying to save you from the severe consequences of breaking University rules and the law.

The University General Conditions of Use of Computing and Network Facilities, which forms part of your contract with the University, and has a section dedicated to the issue of copyright infringement.  Breaking these rules leaves you open to disciplinary action, if you are staff or student (the only difference is which part of the University deals with such disciplinary action).

We are also trying to help protect you from ending up in court, facing the prospect of 10 years in prison and/or an unlimited fine – the current maximum penalty for copyright infringement in the UK.

Sites which facilitate the illegal downloading of files are often the source of hidden malware that either comes packaged with whatever it is you are downloading or, more commonly, is hidden in adverts (sometimes called “malvertising”) that take advantage of flaws in your web-browser to install malware on your computer without your knowledge or display popups in your browser that are extremely difficult to close.

How can you help yourselves?

Since May 2017, IT Services has noticed a large increase in the volume of these complaints.  We are unsure if there is a large increase in people abusing the University’s network or the copyright holders and agents have become more efficient at locating this illegal activity.  The vast majority of complaints relate to files being shared are films and television programmes yet, with modern streaming services and several cinemas within easy reach of the University, there are numerous cost-effective ways of accessing a very wide range of content within the law and the University’s rules.

Not all users are aware that by downloading with some software, they can also be sharing files.  A prime example is software using “bit torrent” technology, which shares (or uploads) parts of files whilst you are still downloading them.  Even sharing a portion of an incomplete file can be enough to get you in serious trouble – you do not have to share the whole file to be in breach of copyright. It should be stressed that using bit torrent software is, by itself, not illegal but what you do with it can be.

Be aware that file-sharing applications often set themselves up to run in the background when you turn your computer on.  Make sure, if you have used them in the past on your own computer, that they are removed or disabled before you bring your computer onto the University’s networks.  To be clear; we do not condone the illegal sharing of files outside of our network either.

Make sure you have good, up to date antivirus installed on your computer.  The University provides antivirus for free to all current staff and students, including for use on their own computers, for both Windows and Mac platforms.  See this knowledgebase article for more information: Never disable the antivirus on a University managed system.

Other forms of copyright infringement

Whilst this blog post has focused on file-sharing, as that is the method we are most commonly alerted to and the most readily detectible by the copyright holders, there are other forms of copyright infringement which can get you into the same amount of trouble.

Downloading the same material from websites or file repositories that are not authorised or licensed to distribute it is also illegal.

Obtaining licensed software from colleagues when you do not have permission to use the software yourself can also be an infringement of copyright, as well as the terms of the software’s licence.

2 thoughts on “Illegal file-sharing and copyright infringement”

    1. Hi Sylvia,

      I’m not personally familiar with “teamviewer” but as long as you are not using the software to share files that you do not have permission to distribute (especially films, music and software) then you should not be breaking the law. If you are asking if you are licensed to install it, or if you are still not sure if what you are doing with it is okay, the best place to ask is the IT Service Desk – see for information on getting in touch with them.

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