To share, or not to share, that is the question
You know that cute photo, cool video game, hot movie, or that terrific new song you found online and wanted to share with at least a dozen people off the bat? You may want to check and see if it's free to share -- and what actions you do every day that may put you on the wrong side of the fence in terms of legal usage. We do it all the time.
You'll see a funny cat picture on Facebook or a web site, decide your friends need to see it, then save the file to your hard drive and begin emailing it to friends and family, who will get a kick out of it too.
No harm, no foul, right?
Unfortunately, this is where you're on the wrong side of the fence. While it's legal to view that adorable cat picture online, once you begin sharing it, you're now in the distribution racket, which is where things get hairy unless you've been granted specific permission from the owner of the file, or if the material is under a fair use license that allows the work to be freely distributed.
Granted, the penalties for sharing adorable/hilarious cat images aren't that severe (in fact, they're sort of MEANT to be passed around the Internet), but you still need to be careful.
The same theory applies to more specific works (such as movies, music, and commercial software) that have come under scrutiny over the past decade or so, with the rise of file sharing networks such as Napster, Limewire, and Kazaa demonstrating just how easily movies, music and software could be distributed for free over the Internet. In specific instances, the offending party might find itself on the receiving end of a Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) lawsuit, which often bring threats of steep fines (or, at the very least, hefty legal fees to fight the case) against the defendant, albeit with questionable results, as no new RIAA-based lawsuits have been filed against people accused of file sharing within the past few years.
Nowadays, the RIAA seems to have backed off from its campaign of legal pressure and prosecution, the industry group having entered into a tentative agreement with Internet Service Providers such as Cox, Comcast, Time Warner, and others to police their users' activity and slow or suspend service if it appears that a user is downloading or sharing files illegally.
The full history of legal action against file sharing can be found here, but perhaps the best rule of thumb is as follows: if you're not the creator of a work or it doesn't seem like it's kosher for distribution to friends, family, and co-workers, don't save that file to disk and begin sending it around. Instead, link your friends over to the web site with the interesting thing and if there's a copy for sale, kick in a few bucks to help the creator out. When it comes to dealing with your internet service provider, check your terms of service. And, ultimately, if you're not sure if it's legal to distribute something, take a few minutes, e-mail the creator, and ask nicely.
It's just like your mom once said: a little etiquette and respect go a long way, especially on the Internet.