Illegal Downloading: Opening the Door to Criminal Activities

By Jeffrey Wenzel

Published September 1st, 2015

 Millions of people enjoy movies, music, video games, and computer software every day. With the widespread availability of digital content, access to entertainment is becoming easier than ever. Going on-line and downloading the latest movie or album is faster and simpler than going to the store, with content being available even before its commercial release date.

With the popularity of digital content downloading, legal and law enforcement questions arise. The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), using comScore/Nielsen data, estimates that 20 per cent of Internet users worldwide regularly access unlicensed services. Canada is ranked among the top 10 countries for the highest number of copyright violations, with more than 3 million infringements alone flagged in 2008, not including many more that go undetected. When digital media is obtained through the Internet for free, copyright laws are broken. But who is affected and what role do law enforcement organizations play in this particular type of crime?

While personal piracy may be as simple as downloading a movie or music album for entertainment, commercial piracy opens the door to a whole world of criminal activity. The Safety and Justice Program and the Global and Risk Security Center conducted a study on film piracy and its connection to organized crime and terrorism. Piracy is frequently used by organized crime groups as well as to fund terrorist organization, due to its high payoff and low risk, with profit margins even greater than those of illegal narcotics.

Downloading digital content for free may be a black and white issue in the eyes of the law, but the enforcement of copyright infringement is not so straightforward. Any copyright protected material that is shared for free against the will of the copyright holder, either digital or physical, is considered a violation of copyright law. Illegal downloading, however, is not a criminal offence in Canada. Such downloading does possess the risk of being liable in a civil proceeding. As such, police currently have little means of intervention, with the onus on copyright holders to enforce their rights.

The Canadian Parliament has made recent progress in revising the laws around copyright violations. On January 2, 2015, the Copyright Modernization Act came into effect, revising Canada’s Copyright Act. This legislation is an attempt to reduce the amount of piracy that occurs in Canada. Internet service providers are now required by law to send a “Notice and Notice” to customers who are found to be downloading content illegally as identified by copyright owners. While customer information cannot be passed on to the copyright owner without a court order, records of the notice are kept for six months in case they are needed for a trial.

Informing individuals that they are breaking the law by downloading content illegally has been found to have a significant impact on piracy. Since the introduction of copyright infringement notices, Canadian Internet service providers (Bell, Rogers, Telus, and Shaw) have reported that piracy rates have dropped by an average of 47.65%. Educating people about their illegal activity is an effective and economical way to reduce piracy without tying up police and court resources; making notices mandatory by law is a significant step forward in battling this issue.

While adapting laws and informing consumers about illegal downloading are effective, media corporations must also adapt themselves to this new digital era in order to reduce piracy. On July 10, 2015, the music industry introduced New Music Fridays, an initiative to standardize music release dates to combat piracy. All new music is now released globally on Fridays at 12:01am. Certain countries no longer have to wait to gain access to music that has been released elsewhere. This change eliminates the need for consumers to illegally download music to access it before it is released.

Music and film industries are also conforming to the new digital standard and making content easier to access for consumers. Streaming services such as Spotify and Netflix allow for a large collection of content to be streamed directly to consumers, all from the comfort of their own home. These innovations by the media industries are what will have the biggest impact on piracy in the long term by giving consumers fewer reasons to download content illegally.

There is, however, more that needs to be done to combat the problem of illegal downloading. Canada is known to be one of the most piracy-friendly countries in the world due to lax punishment laws. The Copyright Modernization Act includes a limitation on the amount of money for which a copyright holder can sue, with $5000 being the maximum for personal use and $20,000 for commercial use. Because of this limitation, copyright holders are less likely to pursue individuals, as their monetary returns would be minimal.

So should Canadian police organizations commit resources to investigating illegal downloading and copyright violations? While commercial piracy is considered by police to be a serious offence as it has the potential to lead to other more serious types of crime, investigating personal piracy would be a drain on police resources. Personal piracy is so widespread and so difficult to track down to a single person, thereby making police enforcement problematic.

While the growing popularity of illegal downloading is a significant concern, police should not be the driving force behind reducing piracy. Consumer education, as well as innovation by the media industry, are what will have the largest impact on piracy reduction. Therefore, the next time people you know are talking about how they just downloaded the latest movie or album from their favourite pirate website, educate them on Canada’s copyright laws, and tell them about the easy and affordable legal alternatives.

 Jeffrey Wenzel served as the OACP’s 2015 Placement Student from Humber Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning. He is completing his Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice in 2016. Jeffrey can be contacted at