Copyright and linking to copyright content: do you know the risks?

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I don’t know if this post is really really obvious or not at all obvious.  Maybe not at all obvious, from the sheer quantity of copyrighted images, music, books and video flying around the web in places where the copyright owner has not authorised them to be.

I’m leaving entirely aside the morality of, say, ripping film off DVD and putting it on Youtube, or using a pirated copy of your music as a background for your own home movie. I’m not  arguing on morality: we are in a position where the law is trying to catch up with technology and this inevitably creates odd and irritating situations.

I have many times had to explain to business owners that no, we can’t just take copies of photos off other people’s websites and use them on their commercial website, and that doing this affects other people’s livelihood – and is a risk.  Many people just do not realise that by using other people’s content, or linking to illegal material they are running a risk and potentially exposing their families to risk too.

Take the case of Richard O’Dwyer.  Richard was a student who made a bit of money doing  commercial web design on the side, while studying.  He set up a website that linked to places where pirate copies of movies could be downloaded. He didn’t pirate the movies or host the downloads – he just linked to them.

You’d think that someone able to create such a site would have had some idea that making money from a website with links to illegal content might put his small business at risk and expose him to timeconsuming legal problems –  but apparently not.  I bet he didn’t expect to be facing extradition to the USA, anyway. Extradition charges against him were finally dropped at the end of November 2012, but in the meanwhile, his equipment was confiscated and I imagine he had an utterly horrible two years before he could be certain he was not going to end up in a US jail.

The fact that he was eventually acquitted isn’t the point. If he had expected to face trial anywhere, even in the UK, even if he was likely to be eventually found not guilty – would he really have taken the risk?  Did he fully understand the issues around copyright and decide to make a principled stand for more freely distributed information and entertainment?  Or, did he not have the first idea of the potential risks and legal issues that he was exposing himself to?

Illegal content is everywhere, and this poor lad has obviously been picked out to make an example of.  But how many people who put up links on their blog or in an online community really understand that their online presence IS being tracked, by their ISP if by nobody else, and that if the police do come calling, the ISP will hand over all records?

Do they understand that what they are doing could expose them to considerable legal hassle, even if they are eventually found innocent, and the only thing that is protecting them is that nobody has yet decided they’d make a good example?

Do they realise that if the internet connection is not in their name, the person whose name is on  the bill could be the one to get it in the neck?  Do they even realise that other people might be reading their email? From the number of people who ask me to email them passwords that give access to make changes to their websites, I suspect not.

All I can say is, when creating content for the web, if all of that content is not 100% yours and you think the copyright owner might not approve –  think hard and long about whether this is stuff you would happily go to court to defend, and before that, potentially lose internet access for an extended period and have other limits put on your computer use, even if you eventually were found innocent.

I’m not saying don’t link anything, or that technically-illegal stuff is morally wrong.   I’m saying: copyright law is messy, complicated and has the potential to royally muck your life up.  It is a good idea to take it seriously. If you have thought about it and are pretty sure that the most likely outcome of a particular technical breach of the law is having to reply penitently to a stern email and maybe remove some content, then that is your choice.

But plenty of people seem to be taking risks with the kind of content that is likely to be protected vigorously by scary lawyers – movies, music – and for what? Is it really worth the risk of becoming an example, for a couple of hours watching a grainy copy of a bad film, or the cost of paying a few pounds for the rights to use someone’s photographic or font design work?