Dean of Students

Illegal File Sharing


File Sharing and Copyright Infringement

In 2008, President George W. Bush signed into law H.R. 4137, the Higher Education Opportunity Act. This bill, a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965, includes provisions that are designed to reduce the illegal uploading and downloading of copyrighted works through peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing. 

[Wording adapted from Reed College]

Copyright Law and Campus Policies

At the beginning of each academic year, the vice president for Student Affairs sends a message to the Duke undergraduate community informing students about Duke’s policies, as well as the civil and criminal penalties to which violators may be subject. 

Copyright law

Copyright infringement occurs when you do any of the following: reproduce, distribute, perform, publicly display, or create a derivative work (recasting, transforming or adapting an original copyrighted work) a copyrighted work without the permission of the copyright owner.

When you upload or download works protected by copyright without the permission of the copyright owner, you may be infringing on the copyright owners rights of reproduction and/or distribution. If you are found to have infringed a copyrighted work, you may be liable for statutory damages up to $30,000 for each work infringed. If the copyright owner can prove willful infringement, you may be liable for up to $150,000 for work each work infringed. Your liability may not stop there: you may also be liable for the attorney’s fees the copyright owner incurs to enforce his or her rights.

Files distributed over peer-to peer networks are primarily copyrighted works. Should you distribute or reproduce (upload or download) them without the permission of the copyright owner, you run the risk of liability. You can avoid these risks by purchasing works through authorized services. There are currently many such sites on the Internet that allows you to purchase copyrighted works online. 

EDUCAUSE maintains a list of legal sources of online content. Note that there may be some websites that are not listed that offer to sell content. Not all sites that sell content are legal; similarly, free content is not always illegal. These sites may be funded through advertisers or represent artists who wish to distribute their music freely. It is your responsibility to know which sites are legal.

Additionally, Duke’s IT Security Office hosts on its website an FAQ about copyright, fair use, and filesharing.

Campus policies related to violating copyright law

Duke’s undergraduate policies on Academic Dishonesty and Computing and Electronic Communications describe the fair and legal use of others’ copyrighted materials, as well as the proper use of Duke’s computing networks for the transmission and sharing of data and digital information. 

Duke receives “cease and desist” infringement notices regularly from representatives of the music and motion picture industries and other copyright owners. As mandated by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the university passes along such notices to those individuals who have registered computers/devices which are associated with the IP address(es) (IP) at the time given in the notices.


FAQ on filesharing and Duke’s interactions with the RIAA and MPAA

RIAA stands for the Recording Industry Association of America. The RIAA is the trade group that represents the US recording industry. More information on the RIAA can be found on their website at MPAA stands for Motion Picture Association of America. It is the movie industry equivalent to the RIAA, and more information about their organization can be found at

Trade groups such as the RIAA and MPAA, as well as companies such as HBO and Paramount, have been sending cease and desist letters to Duke since 1999, asking that the university forward them to the individual associated with a given IP at a given time. Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, Duke is legally required to forward these letters with the instructions that the individual remove any copyright-infringing material he or she is accused of having. Also known as takedown notices, these infringement notifications are forwarded via email, and once the individual has responded to the university that the alleged infringing material has been removed, Duke responds to the trade group or company and the matter is concluded.  Duke received about 1,450 infringement notices in 2007.

The RIAA sometimes sends preservation notices to Duke indicating that they intend to subpoena information from the university. Once notified, Duke is legally required to preserve the requested data - if it has the data - or risk punishment for destroying evidence. The RIAA's preservation notices often note that an "early settlement" letter may be forthcoming. Duke will notify users via email when information that could be used to identify them has been preserved in response to a preservation notice.

In March 2007, the RIAA began asking Duke, in the university's role as an Internet Service Provider (ISP), to forward "early settlement" letters to the registrant associated with an IP address at a given time who is being accused of infringing on RIAA copyrights. The letter puts forth a settlement amount the RIAA is willing to accept in order to avoid taking the case to court. Duke is not legally required to forward these letters since they are not part of a legal process in identifying or resolving copyright violations, but has decided to forward the letters (via certified mail and email) to the alleged infringers so that they have the fullest information possible about the RIAA's allegation and can make informed decisions on how they wish to respond.

The RIAA works through the court system to serve Duke with a subpoena requiring that the university turn over the identity of the person most closely associated with an IP. The university will not turn over the identity of individuals without a valid court-ordered subpoena; the university is legally required to respond to a valid subpoena.

We suggest that those who receive a letter talk to a parent or trusted advisor, and consider seeking independent legal advice. The Office of Counsel at Duke University does not provide legal advice to students.

These settlements tend to be private and not disclosed to the university.

The RIAA is accusing an individual at an identified IP address. If it turns out the person has violated any laws and/or university policies, Duke may take action. Violation of university rules governing appropriate use of IT resources may result in loss of access privileges, university disciplinary action, and/or criminal prosecution.

If Duke receives a valid subpoena, it complies with the legal order to provide information. In the past, such subpoenas have included a deadline. When identifying information about an individual is subpoenaed, Duke notifies the individual by email and certified mail that it will provide the information by the subpoena deadline.  This notification is given with as much advance notice as possible, so that the individual may consult with a parent or trusted advisor, or seek independent legal counsel.

It is up to you to determine how to respond to the notice. You may want to decide with the assistance of an attorney who can help you weigh your options. If you respond without legal assistance, you risk revealing your identity, which would require the complainant to subpoena your identity and/or file a lawsuit. Should you do nothing, you risk being sued.