Illegal file sharing involves the digital transfer of copyrighted material to unauthorized users. It is seen by many as one of the largest threats to the copyright system in the modern world, causing large scale profit losses across the media industry. The legal penalties for illegal file sharing vary somewhat across regions, though most involve the imposition of stiff fines rather than more restrictive punishments such as incarceration.
The file sharing world burst onto the Internet scene in the mid 1990s, when the first file sharing programs made it easy and convenient to search and download files from other users. The arrival of these programs seemed to many to be a great convenience for many; songs, film clips, and printed material could now be shared and swapped across the Internet, just as DVDs or CDs could be traded or lent to friends. Unfortunately, the practice was quickly recognized as copyright infringement by many governments, though the lack of specific laws guiding digital file sharing protocol made this a murky enterprise for many years.
Today, the imposition of legal penalties for illegal file sharing is a much more concrete process. Violators may face infringement fines based on a total value or per-file basis, and have their files confiscated. Since illegal file sharing is prevalent in colleges and universities, many of these organizations have also imposed penalties for students caught sharing files over the university network. Penalties imposed by schools can range from restricted Internet use to dismissal from the institution.
Some regions, such as Australia, do reserve the right to impose prison sentences as well as fines for illegal file sharing. This option is usually avoided, however, at least partly due to the fear of public outcry over imprisoning people for file sharing. In cases of large-scale file sharing, or when illegal sharing is done for the profit of a pirating company, jail may be a possibility. The European Union remains in hot debate in the 21st century over the use of prison sentences for file sharing; some suggest fines are the appropriate path, while others prefer a non-monetary based penalty system that would deny violators access to the Internet.
Penalties for illegal file sharing remain somewhat controversial, even among the artists whose work is at stake. Interestingly, fines for file sharing are not always turned over to the artist whose copyright has been violated, but instead return to the government. Some artists, authors, and filmmakers, have spoken out against this trend, suggesting that some governments are using the violation of copyright as a chance to generate revenue, rather than compensate those who have lost income through file sharing.