Illegal Downloading - What Happens If You Break The Law?

Illegal downloading has become a significant threat to the music, film and television industries. Every day millions of people illegally download music, movies and television programmes from the web. Some estimates report that half the population of the UK has engaged in some sort of illegal downloading in the last five years.

So what could happen if you are caught illegally downloading music, films or television shows? Downloading a song, film or television programme without paying for it is a breach of copyright. In the UK, the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 currently protects copyrighted materials and if you download or distribute copyrighted files without permission you could potentially face a civil action for thousands of pounds of damages.

In the UK, illegal downloading can also lead to a criminal conviction if the downloader is caught making copies for the purpose of selling or hiring them to others. The penalties for such copyright offences depend on their seriousness, but at the upper end of the scale it can lead to an appearance before a magistrate where the penalty for distributing unauthorised recordings is a fine of up to £5,000 or six months' imprisonment. The most serious cases may be sent to the Crown Court, which has the power to impose an unlimited fine and up to 10 years' imprisonment.

The problem with the UK’s existing copyright laws is that they were created before the dawn of the internet age and therefore could not anticipate the huge numbers of people breaking the law in their own homes. Consequently, only a small percentage of those people who have illegally downloaded and distributed copyrighted material have faced action under the existing laws. After facing mounting pressure from film and record companies, the Government has now announced that it will introduce new measures to target illegal downloading via its Digital Economy Bill.

The Bill includes obligations on Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to send notifications to customers who are suspected of infringing copyright. ISPs will also be forced to record the number of notifications a user has received, tracking them through their computer ID numbers, and to send this data to copyright holders, such as record companies, so they can apply for a court order for the user's name and address to enable them to take civil action against serious repeat offenders. Those who fail to stop could be tackled by blocking access to download sites, reducing broadband speeds, or by suspending the individual’s internet accounts.

At the time of going to press, the Bill was due to receive its second reading in the House of Commons on 6 April, the same day that Gordon Brown was expected to request the dissolution of Parliament to trigger a general election. There is therefore concern that the Bill will be rushed through before the general election using the “wash-up” process. Wash-up allows bills to be hurried through to royal assent at the end of Parliament provided they have had a second reading in the Commons at the time an election is called. However, a significant number of objections to the Bill being rushed through have already been made to MPs and a protest against the Bill was held outside Parliament on 24 March. It remains to be seen whether the Bill will become law.

Even if the Bill is not passed, anyone downloading music, films or television programmes without the permission of the copyright holder must be aware that they are breaking existing copyright laws and that they could have a claim made against them for thousands of pounds of damages.

For further advice on the consequences of illegal downloading or other copyright infringement please contact us on 01245 453822 or email

The contents of this article are intended for general information purposes only and shall not be deemed to be, or constitute legal advice. We cannot accept responsibility for any loss as a result of acts or omissions taken in respect of this article.