Copyrighted media: Is it illegal to have on my computer?

"What do I need to know?"

Princeton University encourages responsible use of intellectual property to further the production, preservation and dissemination of knowledge.  The University and community members can be both rights-holders and users of copyrighted materials.  To that end, the University provides resources to educate its community, support fair uses of copyrighted materials and help community members comply with the law. Among these resources is a website where you can learn more about the scope and nature of U. S. copyright protection, including the principles of fair use and you can explore additional copyright resources for students


Over the last decades, the entertainment, publishing, and software industries have pursued copyright infringement claims against thousands of students at colleges and universities, including Princeton, in an extensive campaign to deter illegal sharing of copyrighted material (movies, TV shows, music, etc.). That campaign continues at this time. The U. S. Higher Education Opportunity Act has provisions emphasizing the need for universities to ensure compliance with copyright law.  Below is information that should help you comply with copyright law and University policy.


“What about legal copies on my networked device?”

Even if the copyrighted copies of music, film and video on your device were legally obtained, you must protect those copies from unauthorized copying by others.  For example, just because you have purchased music or a movie on disk or by legal download, you do not necessarily have the right under U. S. copyright law to give copies of that material to your friends or to make it available for copying by others.  If you use the BitTorrent protocol or other kinds of file-sharing, be careful to protect copyrighted material and any personal files from unauthorized access by others.   If you are from a nation with different copyright law, remember that at Princeton you must observe the U. S. laws.


What are my chances of getting caught?”

The entertainment, publishing, and software industries actively monitor the Internet for potentially infringing activity.  Last year, the University received more than one hundred complaints from film and television studios and other copyright holders.  Copyright holders are not required to notify the University before filing a civil lawsuit against a user of the network, or filing criminal charges.  Note that the University may be served with subpoenas that could compel it to disclose the identity of a student suspected of infringement.


“What’s the worst that can happen?”

Civil or criminal charges could be filed. If you willfully infringe a copyright for commercial purposes or financial gain, imprisonment is a possibility.  If the entertainment or software industry sues you, it is likely you will face claims for many thousands of dollars.  Even the cost and inconvenience of defending or settling such a lawsuit can be considerable. Moreover, the University takes disciplinary action for infringement and, in appropriate circumstances such as those involving instances of repeat infringement, the penalty may include suspension of network privileges as well as disciplinary probation.  Pertinent University policies may be found in Rights, Rules, Responsibilities 1.4.9 (Computer & Network Use), as well as the University’s Acceptable Use Policy (and associated Guidelines within Princeton University's Information Technology policy.  


“How do I know whether the material I want is copyrighted?”

The scope of U. S. copyright protection is very broad. As a general matter, it is safe to assume that only music, film and other works published before 1923 are in the public domain and no longer protected under the copyright law of the United States.  It is also important to remember that copyright protection applies even if you do not see the copyright symbol © or an indication that the material in question has been officially registered with the United States Copyright Office.  In addition, you are not generally free to copy or redistribute the work of others publicly – even if you found it for free on the Internet – without authorization. There are Internet sites that offer legal copies of music, video and other copyrighted materials for free or for a small fee, see educause legal content


“What if I have questions?”

Consult the University copyright resources mentioned above, it's a useful resource for students. The U.S. Copyright Office may be helpful, as may industry websites such as  If you have specific questions regarding University policy regarding infringement and copyright, you can address them to for proper referral.