(this page is part of the Family Guide to Digital Freedom, 2007 edition. Please do read that introduction to know more about the Guide, especially if you mean to comment this page. Thanks)
The short answer is “yes, if they have no explicit permission to do so from the author of those files”, regardless of what those files are: songs, movies, games, texts or software programs. If you forget this, you may hurt both yourself and others.
You Got Lawsuit
In May 2005, D. Bink of Milwaukee was sued by the recording industry for the downloading of hundreds of songs. The choice he had was to immediately pay 3,750 US dollars to settle or go to court, “where he may be ordered to pay at least 750 dollars per song”. Mr. Bink can barely turn on the computer but, two years before the lawsuit, his teenage daughter had downloaded for free several songs from the Internet. He was the one to be sued because the family Internet connection was registered in his name. Mr. Bink decided to fight the lawsuit in court, even though it could cost him more than 10 times the settlement offered, but how many families could, if trapped in the same situation, afford such a luxury?
This is not a hypothetical question. Since 2003, the recording industry has done the same to more than 10,000 families. Their justification is that every album which is not purchased, but downloaded gratis from the Internet is a net loss for them.
Therefore, they say, “it is critical for us to send a strong message to individual users that you can be caught and there are consequences for your actions”, counting on the fact that “the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the uploading and downloading of songs, in violation of copyright, is illegal“.
Since almost nobody knows how to write by him or herself a software program to find or share files online, the recording industry also goes after the people who write and distribute such programs. This software, however, is also used to share a huge amount of legally re-distributable computer programs, or multimedia content. Since such legitimate uses exist, you have no justification if you use those programs to perform illegal downloads: the fine print on every file sharing program or website invariably says that it is only (and rightly) your responsibility if you use their software and infrastructure to violate copyright laws.
The industry, in any case, couldn’t care less: if some software could hit their wallet in any way, its developer, even if he or she is a teenage student, cannot be allowed to develop it.
In year 2000 a Norwegian teenager was arrested for having broken, with almost no effort, the DVD encryption scheme. You might have heard this referred to as the DeCSS trial. This boy has been prosecuted by the movie industry with all their powers, and treated (by some press at least) as one of the worst criminals of the decade. And then he was cleared of all charges only three years later. The program written by that Norwegian hacker, and the way it’s supposed to be used, however, are perfectly legitimate. What that program makes possible is to play a regularly bought DVD on your computer even if the DVD software of your choice is not on the officially supported list.