What determines whether or not an internet download is legal?

There are two broad categories that illegal internet downloads will fall into: either they are "illegal" because they infringe on someone's copyright, or they are a violation of the law in some other way, like downloading child pornography.

Because the second category is usually easy to identify, I assume that you're talking about the first. So, if you want to avoid illegally downloading copyrighted material, here are a few things that you may want to consider:

  • First, look at the source.
    • Popular streaming sources like Hulu are always informing users about the scope of their permission from the copyright owners, so that it's very clear that the streaming is not illegal. Internet music download sources like LaLa and iTunes also have an agreement with the owners of the copyright. Another sure thing is if the source is the official website for the movie, photographer, or musician. These downloads are almost always legal.
    • On the other hand, sources that promise "unlimited free downloads" for "all of your favorite movies and music" are usually too good to be true. Downloading copyrighted material that other, private individuals have uploaded from peer to peer sites is almost always illegal.
  • Second, look at the material.
    • Owners of popular, creative works in their full and original form are less likely to give permission for free downloads. Because of this, you'll want to look more to the source of these downloads to make sure that there is permission, or some licensing agreement with the host (again, Hulu is a good example).
    • On the other hand owners of documentaries, older works, and works that have been modified are more likely to to have given permission for the download (and it is possible that there is no copyright claim at all). You still want to be vigilant and look to the source, but this is just one more factor to consider.
  • Of course, nothing is a sure thing, but if you follow these steps, the chances of being prosecuted for infringement will be drastically reduced. Essentially, you'll want to look at the total picture and ask yourself, "is there likely permission here?" and also "is this too good to be true?"