HomeAbout UsContact UsFrançais
Be Web Aware
File Sharing
What Kids do Online
Know the Challenges
Safety Tips by Age
Get Involved

File sharing

Along with playing video games, downloading music and movies are among the top online activities for Canadian youth. Using file-sharing or peer-to-peer (P2P) programs, kids can search for and then download free music, movies, video games or software – which in most cases are copyright protected.

How does it work?

With file sharing systems, several computers can communicate directly through a network to trade files: most often music in MP3 format, but movie files are gaining in popularity (in the first week after its release in 2009, the blockbuster film Avatar was illegally downloaded one million times).

Is file sharing legal?

Downloading copyrighted material without paying for it, by any means including file sharing, is illegal. In Canada, the Copyright Act protects all intellectual property and forbids unauthorized copying.

Users who share files break the law in two ways:

  • by copying files for other users: Under the Copyright Act, private copying of copyrighted music is legal: this is limited to making a single copy of a musical work for your own personal use. There is no private copying exception for movies, software, or non-musical sound recordings. File sharing does not count as "private copying" because you are making a copy of something for someone else's use when you make it available to be downloaded.
  • by sharing with other users: The basic principle of “file sharing” is sharing; other people provide us with access to their files and we give others access to ours. However, it is a violation of the Copyright Act to open to public access works that are protected by copyright because the copies are no longer “strictly for personal use”. Damages for this type of offence are between $500 and $20,000.
"Notice and notice"

Due to constant advances in new technologies, the Copyright Act is left with a number of grey areas when dealing with digital media. Faced with a loss of sales due to file sharing, industry associations are trying to find solutions themselves, and have attempted to crack down on illegal file sharing. One solution that has been adopted by Canadian Internet Service Providers is a "notice and notice" policy, where customers are sent notices to remove infringing materials when service providers become aware of downloading activities from file-sharing sites. Michael Geist, an expert in Internet law at the University of Ottawa, has noted that although this process doesn't have any significant legal weight, it’s a better approach than that taken in other countries, like the United States, where Internet Service Providers are expected to take down possibly infringing material themselves.

The Copyright Act of Canada is in the process of being reviewed. The Copyright Board of Canada Web site will provide you with information on the most recent developments.

Talk to your kids about file sharing

In file-sharing sites, you don’t share only files…

Access to a file-sharing network involves downloading a specific type of software. It might be free, but there is still a price to pay. Some of the most popular downloads come bundled with dangerous and pesky parasites. These are called “malware”. They may do things such as automatically creating links sending the user to advertising pages and sometimes even to pornographic sites. Other kinds of malware include programs called "keyloggers," which record and transmit anything you type on your keyboard, and programs that commandeer your computer to send out junk e-mails or more copies of the same program.

Many people use these file-sharing networks to share pornographic images or videos that your child could inadvertently stumble upon. Parental filters that usually block pornography don’t generally work on this type of software. Some file-sharing networks have created their own screening system and you should find out whether this applies to the one your child uses.

It’s not just a legal issue

Generally, youth are not interested in paying for products they can get for free online, so it’s important for parents to encourage their kids to reflect on the effects of their actions on the artists they enjoy.

The debate surrounding downloading versus paying for music isn’t black and white – even among the artists themselves. Some are in favour of users downloading their music because it gives them free publicity for their concerts, which is where they make most of their profits. Others are fervently against it as it takes away from profits they could be making by selling their recorded music.

The best advice for parents to give their kids is for them to look into how a specific artist feels before downloading their music.

Legal and free option

A better solution than forbidding youth from downloading music is to let them know the options that exist for legally downloading files for free.

For example, the Airtist Web site only requests that visitors view an advertisement first before downloading songs for free. As for individual singers and bands that are just starting out, they count on donations. The site SellaBand lets visitors listen to music from unknown bands that are hoping to break on to the scene. If you like their music, you can then choose to support the musicians by buying a share in the group to help them amass the capital needed for an album or a tour.


In the case of software, there are a large number of comparable free, open-source alternatives to fee-based products. Open source software which uses a GNU licence and is accompanied by the GNU logo, stands apart in that it allows users to use, copy, distribute, study, modify and improve software by making the code for these products freely accessible and copyright-cleared for sharing.

The Internet has definitely impacted the economy. By transforming paying consumers into fans of free products, it is forcing industries to invent new economic models. But the changes do not end there. The Internet has also initiated a new economy based on donations and collaboration, as we’ve seen. It is important that children understand these alternatives: their adoption or rejection of them may determine the path of the future.

Legal but for a cost option

There are also many sites online where users can pay to download music. Online music for sale can be found on music label or artist sites, or sites like Puretracks.com and iTunes. You can also check with your Internet provider to see what options they offer for music downloading or streaming.

Tips for parents

There are ways you can make file sharing a positive experience.

Stick to copyright-cleared MP3s

If you want to avoid computer viruses, and stay on the right side of the law, stick to copyright-cleared MP3s. Most file-sharing programs let you choose what kind of files you can search for. Make sure you’re only searching for music files (MP3s) and not video or image files.

Use filtered file-sharing programs to avoid viruses and explicit materials

Some file-sharing programs have their own built-in filtering systems, so it pays to experiment with different types of file-sharing software to see which ones offer the most protection.

Only use your file-sharing program to exchange files

Many popular programs include instant messaging and chat services along with the file-sharing function. Choose a program that doesn’t offer these services or one that permits you to disable access to them.

Look out for “spyware” that’s included with some file-sharing programs

Spyware is software that comes bundled with some file-sharing programs. Spyware can change your home page setting, create pop-ups on your desktop and even add links to Web pages that weren’t there before.

Make sure that anti-virus software and firewalls are loaded on your computer for virus protection

When you set up your file-sharing program, set your preferences so other people can only access the files on your computer that you want them to have. (It’s a good idea to sit with your child when they’re downloading and setting up the program.)

Find us on FaceBook Follow us on Twitter!

Dig Deeper


For Parents: Music

Additional Resources

E-mail warnings deter Canadians from illegal file sharing (CBC News, February 15, 2007)

Music for Less Than a Song (Michael Adams)