( dpa )- It's long been illegal to download copyrighted music or films from public file sharing web sites. Yet internet users in Germany have had little reason to fear penalties, presuming that they themselves hadn't provided the files for download. The situation is starting to change a bit, however: downloading the material itself is now a crime as well.
In many "peer-to-peer" networks, users who download something are also automatically converted into providers as well. In cases where this doesn't apply, past episodes of downloading alone are probably like cause for concern. The law in Germany has only specifically forbid the downloading of "clearly illegally produced" files. The excuse was always available that a user didn't realise that the provider had acquired the CDs or films in anything but a legal manner.
The music and film industries had for this reason foregone lawsuits related to this kind of violation: "To my knowledge there is not a single case where someone was punished solely for downloading," says Bernhard Rohleder , lead business director at the Berlin-based industry association BITKOM.
But a new sheriff may have ridden into Germany, based on a recent expansion to the corresponding paragraph in the copyright protection law. Downloading is now illegal not just for the purpose of creating illicit copies, such as when a film is recorded in the theatre, but also for a copy "made publicly accessible." That means almost everything publicly available on a peer-to-peer or file sharing network may not be downloaded.
"So now if you use this kind of a network, you are generally making yourself legally vulnerable," says Jan Scharringhausen from a Hamburg-based copyright protection organization, the GVU. The only materials that should be downloaded without payment are those offered for free by the proper copyright holder.
By the same token, it's highly unlikely that everyone who downloads illegally will be caught and punished. After all, rights holders are still faced with a certain time and money expense to determine the identity of file sharing users, explains Till Jaeger, a lawyer and copyright expert based on Berlin.
The idea is to remove the sense of security felt by many downloaders . The music and film industries have been casting an increasingly critical eye on these illegal activities, Jaeger says. The impulse to act is likely to grow, not recede.
"And don't try to get away with 'I only do it once in a while'," says Scharringhausen from the GVU.
Users who are caught may well face civil consequences, namely payment demands that in some cases may be high.
"These crimes often carry fines of several thousand dollars," Scharringhausen says. This is based not just on compensation requirements by the music of film labels, but the high legal costs as well.