Some background first:

When I was in college for engineering, the student-run IT department in the general dorm absolutely insisted on seeing every device on the network, and all the traffic too, to the point of banning even "dumb switches" (which are still smart enough to figure out which port a specific device is connected to, and only send its traffic to that port) and issuing hubs instead (which blindly broadcast everything they receive to all of their ports, so that the IT guys could see what I sent to my networked printer).

This was when Windows XP was current, which allowed unrestricted access to its Public folders by default. (they are PUBLIC, after all, right?)

Put that together, and we have a bunch of college kids with officially-mandated direct access to the other students' Public folders! (there are several things in that bold part, that the combination of should raise flags)

Also at that time, the Public folders were the default save location for a number of things. So quite a few of them had what appeared to me to be extensive music collections, which leads to:

The question:

I decided to be honest, and NOT copy that music for myself, but if I had, who would have been guilty of what?

My understanding of copyright law suggests that:

  • The student that I copied from would be guilty of unauthorized distribution, and could be fined accordingly, despite knowing nothing of what was going on or even how it was possible, simply because it was in their Public folder and thus made freely available to others. Nevermind that "Public" was simply their software's default save location, and they again knew nothing of the ramifications. Thus, this poor student gets slammed, completely out-of-the-blue, for something they had no idea about.

  • The developer/owner of that music-management software may also get sued for making it easy for this to happen. (Public by default)

  • The dorm's IT department might get a not-so-nice call as well, from a high-powered lawyer, about making it easy for this to happen. (requiring access)

  • *I* could simply claim ignorance, that the officially-enforced arrangement implied permission, and that I had accepted the offer on good faith. I would then get off with little more than an order to delete everything that I had taken. (and whatever the IT guys decided to do with me for their troubles) Unless of course I had distributed it myself, knowingly or not, in which case I'd be in the same boat as the student that I had stolen it from.

Is that true? Did I put the concepts together correctly? Or am I all wet?

  • 1
    Even at the time, the network would have been fast enough to simply play the file from the remote computer, so you wouldn't have necessarily needed to retain a local copy. Note that alleging that such copying had occurred would have been an uphill battle in the first place, and would have required that IT actually log the files and their metadata transferred - possibly unlikely. The big wrinkle here is a zealous prosecutor may attempt to go after you for violating the CFAA (Computer Fraud and Abuse Act) for accessing the folder, regardless of everything else. Nov 30 '20 at 6:31
  • 1
    Generally, the music companies didn't go after people for copying music from their friend's legally purchased CDs for free (there might be some defense against that as well, especially if no money changed hands to a degree that the friend made a profit off the copied music). Not to mention there's no money in sueing college kids, who are usually broke or close enough too it. At this time in history, the music companies were more targeting Napster and similar P2P sharing sites as they had much more money and were bigger breakers of the rules.
    – hszmv
    Nov 30 '20 at 12:47
  • @Clockwork-Muse Oooh...I had no idea about the CFAA. I figured there'd have to be something against intentionally planting a virus in someone's Public folder (after checking it against the one and only virus scanner that IT allowed us to use), no matter what that law would be called, but I didn't think about it covering the mere access of something that was wide open and publicly available.
    – AaronD
    Nov 30 '20 at 15:09
  • @hszmv Generally, that was true, but I remember that it did occasionally happen. Not to get any money from it, but to "make an example". Randomly (or perhaps chosen opaquely?) destroy someone at a near-total loss to the prosecution so that others wouldn't do the same thing. It effectively became a low-probability / high-consequence thing to have over your head if you decided to try it.
    – AaronD
    Nov 30 '20 at 15:14

Student Copying

A person making an unauthorized copy of copyrighted music (or any work protected by copyright) was committing copyright infringement, and could have been sued for doing so. The defense that a shared notwork folder implied permission would have been unlikely to succeed, as people are supposed to know that permission from the author or publisher is required, and neither another student nor the institution's IT department could grant such permission.

However, that defense might have led to a defendant being classed as an "innocent infringer" under US copyright law, which greatly reduces the possible damage awards. In any case, suits over infringement where no profits are being made usually do not result in large damage awards and so are often not worth bringing.

Student Copied From

Generally a case for "unauthorized distribution" would only be won if the source person had profited, ort attempted to profit, or had intentionally facilitated copying, usually by advertising in ways calculated to encourage infringement.

A student who saves a lawfully acquired copy to the normal default location and makes no effort to en courage others to make unlawful copies, nor profits in any way, would not have been liable.

Software Developer

If the developer's business model had depended on unlawful copying, or had advertised the software in ways which encouraged such copying, then a case for contributory copyright infringement might have been winnable. That is what happened to some of the file-sharing services, such as Napster. But there is no general duty to secure such software. If the software had legitimate uses, and was being promoted only for such legit uses, and was not actually and knowingly depending on unlawful uses, the developer is not likely to have been held liable.

College IT Department

Similarly the IT dept was not under a duty to ensure security or prevent infringement, to the best of my knowledge. A suit would have had to show that they were intentionally facilitation copying, profiting by such copying, or explicitly prompting unlawful copying for the Dept or its members to be held liable.

Now the department might have been held liable for privacy violations that its policies made more likely, particularly if they had prevent students from taking measure to protect private information. But that is an issue the question does not address.

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