A Kid's Guide to Internet Downloads


Copyright is a complicated subject at any time, but it can be even more confusing for young people who are growing up in a world where movies and music are available for free at the click of a button.

It may be difficult for you to know what is legal and what is not when it comes to downloading content from the internet, and one of the problems is that a lot of misinformation exists. According to a 2008 Microsoft survey, teenagers are less likely to download illegally when they know the rules, but as many as half of teenagers are unfamiliar with the laws.

You need real information that you can use to decide what you should and should not download online, and that's what this guide provides.

What Is Copyright?

Copyright law is all about fairness. It is hardly fair if someone invests time, effort, and money creating a book, movie, or song that other people then start copying or making money from without their permission.

The aim of copyright law is always to protect content creators. U.S. Copyright law provides legal protection for the original creators of music, videos, writing, dramatic work, painting, sculptures, and more. It gives the owner exclusive rights to distribute and copy their work, to create new work based on the original work, and to display the work publicly or perform it (as in a play).

Violation of these rights by someone else is called copyright infringement.

Copyright is granted automatically to the creator of the work. For example, if you write a story, you have the copyright to it without having to do anything else. For works created after 1977, the copyright lasts for the life of the creator as well as a further 70 years following their death.

One thing to remember is that copyright refers to the fixed expression of an idea rather than the idea itself, which cannot be copyrighted. So having an idea about a book cannot be copyrighted, but once you put that idea down on paper it is protected.

Chapter 1: The First Sale Doctrine: Selling Copyrighted Work

If you buy a book or an album that is copyrighted, you are not buying the copyright. Instead, you are simply buying a copy of the work. First Sale is the practice of reselling a product that contains copyrighted material, which is legal. So, you can sell on your old albums or books without copyright being an issue.

There is a good definition of the First Sale Doctrine at Copyright Kids that you may want to read for further clarification.

What About Plagiarism?

Plagiarism is something you will probably hear about a lot in school. Plagiarism is the concept of protecting ideas, and it is different from copyright. It often crops up when someone tries to pass off an idea as their own—such as in an essay—when actually they should be citing the original source.

Your teachers can provide you with more information about how to cite your sources correctly to avoid plagiarism.

Fair Use

The concept of Fair Use can be confusing. Essentially, it allows you to make reasonable use of copyrighted work without getting permission from the copyright owner. However, it is important to ensure that your use of copyrighted content really does fall under Fair Use.

When determining whether use of copyrighted content comes under Fair Use, you must consider:

  • The quantity of the original work that you are using, and whether it is necessary.
  • Whether your use is commercial or for non-profit or creative purposes.
  • Whether the original work is factual or creative.
  • Whether the market for the original is harmed as a result (e.g. would fewer people buy the original now that you have created the new work).

Copyright.gov states that "the distinction between what is fair use and what is infringement in a particular case will not always be clear or easily defined." It is therefore best to be cautious when you want to use copyright protected work in any way.

Chapter 2: How New Technology Challenges Copyright

When new technologies come along (like the internet), they often pose challenges to copyright law. The internet has given rise to a notion among many people that all content should be free to download and use. However, it is not the first technology to cause problems, and the law constantly evolves due to the arrival of new technology.

Take the Betamax case. When the Betamax VCR came out in 1976, Universal City Studios sued Sony because they could not see how a VCR could be used in any way other than to infringe copyright. However, the Supreme Court did not agree, and in 1984 it said recording and viewing programs was considered Fair Use (you can read a detailed account of the case at Wikipedia).

Copyright and Internet Downloading

The growth of the internet, and the ability to use it to download content including songs, movies, and books, has had a dramatic effect on the notion of what is right and wrong when it comes to downloading free content—especially for young people.

Your friends may all be downloading videos for free using P2P sharing websites or by sharing torrent files. But just because the practice is widespread, it does not mean it is legal.

You may hear people arguing that the internet has changed everything and that we should all be able to share files legally for free. But just because the technology makes it possible to download free content, it does not make it legal.

Chapter 3: Is Downloading Content Always Illegal?

The technology used to download and share content is not illegal in itself. The legality is determined by the type of content that you download. So what content can be downloaded and shared legally?

Public Domain

Anything that is in the Public Domain can be downloaded, shared, and used freely for any purpose. Public Domain works are those where the copyright has come to an end (such as Charles Dickens's novels or the works of Shakespeare), or where it has been forfeited. The creator of the work may even decide to dedicate it to the public domain.

There are many sources of Public Domain work online, including Project Gutenberg and the IMSLP.

Creative Commons

Creative Commons is different to the Public Domain. This is a nonprofit organization that allows you to set a license on work you create that determines how other people can use your work.

For example, a photographer may want to allow people to download and use an image, but they may want to prevent companies from making money from the image. Or they may want to allow people to use their image but only if they do not alter it.

If you want to use an image on your website or blog, you may be able to find one that has a Creative Commons license. However, always check the requirements because the creator of the work may have set specific conditions for using it.

Permission to Share

Sometimes copyright holders will provide express permission for their work to be downloaded and shared online. For example, musicians may use this as a form of marketing for their early demos and may actively encourage it. Even so, remember that because some artists provide permission for their work to be shared in this way, it does not mean you can do the same with all similar works.

Conclusion & Resources: Be Cautious when Downloading

Nowadays, music and movies can be downloaded legally using services like iTunes and Google Play. The main difference between these services and illegal downloads is that you have to pay for them.

Not all free downloads are illegal. However, if you come across a movie, song, or game that has only recently been released and is being offered as a free download, it is always better to assume that it is illegal until you are absolutely sure that it is not copyright protected.

When you want to use copyrighted content in personal projects like videos, always consider the issue of Fair Use and ask your teacher for advice. And remember that there is plenty of content that are freely available in the Public Domain, so stick to downloading these wherever possible.

Learn More:

Creative Commons - find content that can be downloaded and shared

Project Gutenberg - public domain eBooks to download for free

IMSLP (International Music Score Library Project) - Public Domain music library

Copyright Kids - good overview of copyright basics

Cyberbee - questions and answers on copyright for kids

Library of Congress guide - guide to copyright for kids

Copyright Confusion - a wiki containing detailed information on copyright issues

Fair Use Evaluator - a tool to help you work out whether your use of copyrighted content is classified as fair use