Downloading Games from Usenet: Is it Legal?

Downloading online content has always been controversial. There have been big, high profile lawsuits going back to the web’s early days when file-sharing platforms such as Napster came under legal fire from supergroup Metallica. The band took exception to their rare material being shared between users.

There have been others too such as Pirate Bay. There have been counter lawsuits as well. Given the history, it would be easy to conclude that downloading games from Usenet will incur the same wrath from copyright owners, incurring the same legal issues and penalties.

However, that may not be the case. Let’s explore in more detail.

What is Usenet?

Usenet emerged in 1980 from the Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and predates the internet. In its original form, it facilitated discussions via a bulletin board system which was the forerunner to internet forums. Terms we take for granted today such as, ‘FAQ’, ‘Flame’, ‘SOC Puppet’, and ‘Spam’ owe their origins to Usenet.

It worked on a peer two peer basis and was primarily used by Academics to share information. In 1993 with the rise of the internet, however, AOL made Usenet access available to its users resulting in an influx of new subscribers, boosting popularity considerably.

Usenet has always been separate to the internet and operates on its own network. It still operates forums, and here many users enter into discussions and access the content they want.

Today, Usenet is still prominent, and many are using it to download games and other digital art. Several operators facilitate the downloading of games often charging a monthly fee. You can see a Usenet platform comparison site here so you can familiarize yourself with the options.

The Legal Question

The question of legalities in this instance is a grey area. Subscription to a premium account via Usenet to download games is not purchasing a subscription form the game distributors/developers. Instead, you are paying for faster, ad-free downloads. It is still possible to download without a premium account in many instances, but it is a longer process, and you’ll be hit with an avalanche of ads.

Without question, sharing copyrighted content is illegal, at least in many countries. The question is not whether it is illegal; it is a question of whether it is illegal to download it. Often, when criminal prosecutions are brought against Usenet users, they are brought against those that are running the servers which you access to download. A prosecution is rarely brought against those that actually download the content.

In a recent case, July 2019, two men were sentenced in Germany to 66 months in prison. They operated three Usenet resources: Town.ag, Usenet-town.com and NFO-Underground.xxx.

They were prosecuted because they were using the resources to supply copyrighted material and presumably made money doing so. During the trial, it transpired that Town.ag was supplying around 1.2 million copyrighted items, including games, ebooks, music, and films.

The two men, ‘GerritG.’ and ‘Matthias E.’ were the technical administrators of the servers, and it is believed that they caused ‘€5.1m in damages to copyright holders.’

GerritG. was sentenced to three years and eight months in prison while Matthias.E. will serve a year and ten months.

The operation to arrest them, was part of a coordinated effort. The association, Gesellschaft zur Verfolgung von Urheberrechtsverletzungen (GVU) works in the interests of copyright holders to track down pirated content. The investigation that led to Town.ag et al. being taken down and was part of a wider 2017 investigation that led to the shut down of twenty Usenet portals in Germany, Canada, Spain, and San Marino.

As you can see, this is an issue that is taken very seriously and has led to a commercial market. Other copyright enforcement groups such as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Dutch copyright enforcer BREIN have both taken Usenet to court.

Usenet Survives

Usenet, however, continues to survive and different platforms offer different types of content, some of which is copyrighted material and as such illegal to download.

Perhaps, therefore, it is not a question of whether it is legal or illegal to download copyrighted material, but more a question of whether you will be prosecuted should you download the content. Right now, the focus of various associations is to shutdown providers rather than those that access the content.

This could be because if you have a premium account with a provider, you have a legal contract with that provider and as such have some protections against prosecution. This is a legal question that needs to be answered by a lawyer. This article is in no way shape or form legal advice.

Non-copyrighted material is legal to download from Usenet, and for now, downloading games and other digital copyrighted content is possible. It isn’t legal, but it is possible, and prosecutions focus on supplier rather than the subscriber.

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