Downloading and copyright law

Downloading is the process of taking data from the internet and storing it on the hard drive of your computer or on another digital device – it’s often referred to as ‘copying a file’. Music, video, games and ringtone downloads are particularly popular with young people.

If we take music as an example, rather than buying a CD you can use a service like iTunes. You pay to download music tracks and albums (as an MP3 file or other format) so that you can listen to them on your computer, portable music player or mobile or burn them onto CD if permitted by the service. Other services also offer a wide range of music, games and other downloads for your mobile, PC or Mac.

Downloading is different to streaming, which is where you listen to music over the internet (on sites like or Spotify) but you don’t save it on your own devices for future use.

What do I need to know about downloading and copyright law? 

Young people are increasingly accessing and sharing music, video, games and other exciting content on download websites, social networking websites and peer-to-peer (P2P) networks. In fact, research by Ofcom shows that more than half of 12 to 15 year olds in the UK download or play music online at least once a week.

It’s great to see such creativity and self-expression but your kids might not understand the legal, safety and security implications of downloading.

It’s therefore crucial that you help your kids to understand who owns the copyright and what they can legally do with content they’ve downloaded from the internet, as well as how they can minimise security risks, such as viruses.

According to the Intellectual Property Office, copyright “protects written, theatrical, musical and artistic works as well as film, book layouts, sound recordings, and broadcasts…You should only copy or use a work protected by copyright with the copyright owner’s permission.”

In terms of digital content, that means you and the rest of your family should only use legal download and streaming services that have obtained permission from the people who created the content, such as musicians and producers.

Young people are often attracted by the “free” content offered by file-sharing or peer-to-peer (P2P) networks. Here, users download P2P software on to their computer so that they can link to a network and swap music or other files with other people. Distributing or copying copyrighted materials, like music tracks or games, without the permission of the creator is likely to be an infringement of copyright.

Where social networking sites like Facebook are concerned, it’s usually OK for young people to watch videos and listen to songs but if they copy (download) content like a music track on to their computer or another device and share it with others, or use it themselves (for example, as a backing track in a video they make), there could be legal implications.

Media companies, such as record labels and games producers, take copyright infringement very seriously. In the UK, many of them are working with Internet Service Providers and the government to clamp down on this practice and have already taken action against a number of file-sharers.

As a parent, you’re responsible for what your child does on the internet so make sure you discuss this very important issue with your son and daughter.

You should also bear in mind that they could download inappropriate and harmful content, such as explicit music tracks or erotic film footage.

What action can I take? 

Talk to your son or daughter about the dos and don’ts of downloading – ask them where they download music, films, games and other content and find out how much they pay for the services they use

Recommend that they download content from established online brands like iTunes – you could direct them to lists of legitimate download services contained on the websites in the ‘Information & support’ section below and encourage them to only use these sites

Explain that online activity is not necessarily anonymous – a copyright owner might be able to get a court order to force an ISP to identify users who infringe copyright

Make the most of Parental Controls and Safe Search to help protect your child from inappropriate online content – but remember, they might not be 100% effective and they aren’t a substitute for parental supervision

Check the browser history on your family computer regularly and look for any desktop icons you don’t recognise

Check the ‘explicit music’ policy of any service your kids are using – all tracks should be identified as containing explicit lyrics before they are downloaded

Make sure your home computer is fully protected, with the latest anti-virus software, firewall and anti-spyware products in place

Encourage your child to create and innovate – content licensed under ‘Creative Commons’ licences can often be enjoyed, remixed and redistributed

Where can I go for more information and support?