How anti-filesharing laws affect you

Last updated: 27 June 2022   By Dr Lucy Brown, Editor

It is illegal to host, share or download content in the UK that breaches copyright laws.

Broadband providers are required to block certain websites that breach copyright and can be required to supply the names of customers who accessed content illegally.

However, if customers receive an enforcement letter from a copyright holder, it's worth remembering that these are usually designed to intimidate users into paying.

Regular research carried out by the Government shows there is a core of users who pirate content, although some access via a mix of legal and illegal methods.

piracy computer
Credit: AlexLMX/

What are the rules on illegal filesharing?

Illegal filesharing involves downloading or streaming pirated content that has not been made freely available and that customers would usually be required to pay for.

This may be through a dedicated piracy website or through peer-to-peer sharing services.

There are different categories of digital piracy copyright law to be aware of:

  • Operating a website that facilitates file sharing or illegal streaming
  • Downloading and distributing pirated content
  • Duplicating and distributing pirated content
  • Downloading music
  • Stealing or sharing files that you haven't paid for

Many internet users will be focused on the last of these points: breaching copyright law by stealing or sharing files they haven't paid for.

In practice, the focus is on those who illegally host lots of copyrighted content and facilitate illegal filesharing. However, as we explore below, people who watch a pirated film or download music illegally can still be targeted.

What happens if I infringe copyright?

The maximum penalty for breaking digital copyright law is up to five years imprisonment and a £5,000 fine.

As we explain later, though, we're unlikely to be taken to court for copyright infringement as things stand, although solicitors and copyright holders may send us letters demanding recompense for breaching their rights.

Anti-filesharing history

Successive governments have implemented policies to deter illegal filesharing, often with an emphasis on people who upload and host content that infringes copyright rather than those simply accessing it.

We saw a court ruling in 2011 that forced BT to block the Newzbin2 filesharing website, while the five biggest ISPs in the UK blocked The Pirate Bay in 2012.

Yet P2P traffic seemed to quickly return to normal levels and the site remains available elsewhere in the world, despite a police raid in Sweden that took it offline.

It was confirmed in October 2013 that 21 piracy sites were blocked by major UK ISPs, and there were reports in 2014 that suggested anti-filesharing laws were having an impact.

ISPs remain required to block certain websites at a router level, regardless of any provider commitments to net neutrality.

Infringement letters

A method of targeting users who illegally access copyrighted content is through infringement enforcement letters.

This was delivered under the now-defunct Voluntary Copyright Alert Program (VCAP) which prompted ISPs to warn customers when they were downloading pirated content.

These letters included information such as:

  • The name of the pirated content and the copyright owner
  • Time and date of download
  • IP address
  • File size and type
  • Application used to download content

However, they were only designed to be educational warnings about the consequences of filesharing on the entertainment rather than notices demanding money from customers.

Yet these notices were dropped without fanfare in 2019, their educational benefit seemingly at an end.

This doesn't mean the end of letters suggesting we've broken copyright rules though.

As far back as 2009, copyright holders have been employing solicitors to send intimidating letters to users suspected of copyright infringement.

We wrote about ACS Law back in 2012 who sent threatening letters about filesharing and recouped money for their clients, despite never bringing a successful case to court.

Their strategy was to coerce people into paying up, and it's a strategy that has been used by other firms more recently too.

For example, users who illegally shared or downloaded a specific film in 2020 received a letter on behalf of the rights holder and demanded money to settle the issue.

These letters are sometimes known as "copyright trolling". While their claims may have some grounding in law, the aim is to scare people into paying rather than take them to court.

However, the fact that the rights holder in this instance was able to obtain a court order against Virgin Media to hand over the personal data of suspected infringers demonstrates that there is some merit behind them.

Citizens Advice has more information on what to do if you receive one of these letters.

How many people access content illegally?

The Intellectual Property Office (IPO) conducts annual research into online copyright infringement and how many people are accessing content illegally in the UK and why.

Their December 2021 study found that copyright infringement was up 2% compared to the previous year, but this was the same figure as four of the last five years - suggesting a steady rate of illegal downloading and streaming.

The following table shows how many people accessed certain types of digital content in 2021 and then how many of those accessed it illegally through filesharing or other types of copyright infringement:

% of people who accessed it % of those who used a mix of legal and illegal methods % of those who only accessed it illegally
Live sports 15% 18% 12%
Music (streamed) 42% 2% 0%
Film (streamed) 45% 13% 2%
TV (streamed) 44% 9% 2%
Music (downloaded) 26% 18% 15%
Film (downloaded) 22% 13% 9%
TV (downloaded) 19% 10% 6%

These figures demonstrate there is a significant core of users who access content illegally, with copyright infringement across the board staying generally consistent year-on-year.

The data also looked at the demographics of people more likely to infringe on copyright:

  • Men were more likely infringe in most categories including music (+8%), live sport (+5%) and film (+5%)
  • Those aged 16-24 were the most likely to infringe across categories including live sport and film
  • Older respondents were more likely to infringe in the live sport category
  • Respondents who used a VPN specifically for entertainment were more likely to infringe than those who used one for other purposes (such as work) or did not use one at all

This last point suggests that some of those who are using VPNs for entertainment purposes are using them deliberately to try and obscure their illegal filesharing.

Finally, the tracker also undertook qualitative research to question what might prompt infringers to stop accessing content illegally:

  • Threat of malware and cyber dangers worried some less experienced infringers but not those who infringed regularly because they trusted their sources
  • Messages about the continued strain on creative industries due to the coronavirus pandemic were the most impactful messages
  • Experienced infringers were most likely to reconsider their behaviour when faced with the prospect of more copyright law enforcement

So, more effective use of the copyright infringement levers the Government already possess may encourage more people to stop accessing content illegally.

Why do people pirate content?

There are some common reasons internet users cite when asked why they pirate content or access illegal filesharing websites.

Examples include:

  1. Unwillingness or inability to pay
  2. Content unavailable in their region or delays in availability
  3. Wanting to watch a film or TV show just once
  4. Belief that creators have enough money or are greedy
  5. The idea that everyone is doing it

Some of these statements can be contradicted by hard facts, yet others are more difficult to counter.

The rise in multiple streaming services has fragmented content to the point where most customers are already paying for several services at once.

For those customers who are legitimately paying for lots of content, finding that one of their favourite shows is not available on their subscriptions can push them towards piracy because they don't want to or can't afford to pay more.

However, all the justifications of piracy are essentially excuses for breaking the law: digital copyright law exists to protect the creative industries and we risk losing those industries without enforcement.

Reasons to avoid digital piracy

Digital piracy can often be seen as a victimless crime, but the IPO research points out that some who use illegal filesharing are dissuaded when they understand the costs to people involved in the creative industries.

Breaching copyright infringement means:

  • Lower revenues for creative companies and individuals
  • Potential job losses or company closures

The IPO highlights the fact that people are more likely to accept these arguments when they relate to smaller individuals rather than companies or big artists.

For customers who are willing to pay but don't know where to look for their favourite content, the Get It Right website will point us in the right direction.

They maintain a database of places to watch, listen, read and play content legally to avoid users succumbing to the temptation of piracy.

Summary: Be copyright aware

Illegally downloading or streaming content is still a problem in the UK, although many of us remain happy to legally pay for the content we access.

Steps to combat illegal filesharing over the years have included:

  • ISPs blocking piracy websites
  • Educational letters sent to those accessing files illegally
  • Threat of enforcement action

However, it's clear there is a subset of users in the UK who will access content illegally or who will access a mix of legal and illegal content.

The educational warnings were discontinued in 2019 and have probably served their purpose by now, but the question remains on how the Government and other agencies should tackle persistent copyright infringement.

The Government is bringing forward fresh proposals to tackle digital piracy among other things in the form of the IP Counter-Infringement Strategy, so we may see fresh deterrents and progress in the coming years.


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