Avoid Illegal Peer-to-Peer File Sharing

How does peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing work?

Peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing is the distribution of digital media such as software, videos, music, and images through an informal network in order to upload and download files. Typically, P2P software allows users to select which files to share. These files are indexed on a central server, making them available for other users to find and download.

Sharing media is not illegal if you have the right to distribute the content. However, many file sharing applications are used to illegally access copyrighted material.

What are the risks of P2P file sharing?


  • Dangerous files can hide behind safe file names. Users can upload malware and name it “Orange is the New Black Episode 1” or “Oxford English Dictionary Volume 3.”
  • P2P software may not be trustworthy. Many applications do not uninstall completely when you attempt to remove them, or do not comply with settings on which files to share and which to keep private.

Privacy Breach

  • You may share more files than you intend. Some applications automatically share folders that contain media. Settings on file sharing applications can also be difficult to interpret, and instead of sharing a few vacation photos, you may unintentionally share an entire photo library.

Financial Penalties

  • Many industries and organizations watch file sharing networks to catch and fine users sharing copyrighted materials.
  • Sharing copyrighted materials can make you liable for fines ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Companies may also decide to file a lawsuit, which can result in penalties exceeding $100,000.
  • Companies providing content that users might find embarrassing are more likely to skip warning letters and attempt to settle immediately. This pressures users to pay fines rather than risk publicity.

What are some legal, affordable alternatives to P2P file sharing?


  • Many software applications are available at a substantially discounted rate to Northwestern students, faculty, and staff for business and personal use.
  • Many vendors like Adobe and Microsoft provide up-to-date versions of their software as a subscription for a very modest monthly fee.
  • While some software is expensive, many applications offer free versions available for download.


  • Streaming services such as Spotify, Netflix, Hulu, Google Play Music, and Amazon Prime Music or Instant Video can be used to supplement or replace personally owned media at little to no cost.
  • iTunes, Amazon MP3, Amazon Prime Video, and Napster allow you to buy individual songs and videos.

How is Northwestern involved in file sharing complaints?

Northwestern, along with other universities, is considered an Online Service Provider under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and is therefore responsible for ensuring that illegal P2P file sharing that uses University resources—from devices to the University network—are stopped. The DMCA complaint process is as follows:

  • A violation notice with evidence is sent to the University. This notice may or may not include a settlement letter.
  • Northwestern Information Technology (IT) staff verify the information and identify users or devices by consulting technical logs.
  • Network access is removed for devices involved in the copyright infringement. The violation notice and evidence are sent to the appropriate manager or conduct officer.
  • Managers or conduct personnel proceed with the appropriate disciplinary action.

What happens if a settlement letter is attached to my file sharing notice?

Members of the University who receive a settlement letter and are uncertain how to proceed are encouraged to seek external legal counsel. Settlement letters are not levied by Northwestern, nor does the University provide legal advice regarding the handling of these letters. 

Additional Information

Support Contacts

Support Contact:

IT Support Center
Central service desk for students, faculty, and staff.
847-491-4357 (1-HELP)
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