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Illegal Activities

Illegal Activities

This article applies to: Policy

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Any activity that is illegal under local, state, or federal laws is a violation of Cornell policy. Alleged violations will be referred to the campus Judicial Administrator. In addition, offenders may be investigated and/or prosecuted by the appropriate local, state or federal authorities. For more information on the law, check out Cornell Law School's Legal Information Institute.

Copyright Infringement

Almost all forms of original expression that are fixed in a tangible medium are subject to copyright protection, even if no formal copyright notice is attached. Written text (including e-mail messages, news posts, and web pages), recorded sound, digital images, and computer software are some examples of works that can be copyrighted. Unless otherwise specified by contract, the employer generally holds the copyright for work done by an employee in the course of employment.

Copyright holders have many rights, including the right to reproduce, adapt, distribute, display, and perform their work. Reproducing, displaying or distributing copyrighted material without permission infringes on the copyright holder's rights. However, "fair use" applies in some cases. If a small amount of the work is used in a non-commercial situation and does not economically impact the copyright holder it may be considered fair use. For example, quoting some passages from a book in a report for a class assignment would be considered fair use. Linking to another web page from your web page is not usually considered infringement. However, copying some of the contents of another web page into yours or use of video clips without permission would likely be infringement. For lots more information, check out Cornell Law School's Legal Information Institute or Stanford's Copyright & Fair Use.

Software Piracy

Unauthorized duplication, distribution or use of someone else's intellectual property, including computer software, constitutes copyright infringement and is illegal and subject to both civil and criminal penalties. The ease of this behavior online causes many computer users to forget the seriousness of the offense. As a result of the substantial amounts of money the software industry loses each year from software piracy, the software companies enforce their rights through courts and by lobbying for and getting stiffer criminal penalties. It is a felony to reproduce or distribute ten illegal copies of copyrighted software with a total value of $2,500 within a 180-day period. Penalties for a first time felony conviction of software piracy include a jail term of up to ten years and fines up to $250,000.

Sound Recording Piracy

Another form of copyright infringement is the unauthorized duplication and distribution of sound recordings. Online piracy is increasing as many people use the Internet to illegally distribute digital audio files (e.g. MP3 format). The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) monitors the Internet daily and scans for sites that contain music. They have been successful in getting the sound recordings removed from those sites. You can report violations to the RIAA directly (see section on Outside agencies).

Federal copyright law grants the copyright owner in a sound recording (typically, a record company) the exclusive right to reproduce, adapt, distribute and, in some cases, digitally transmit their sound recordings. Therefore, the following activities, if unauthorized by the copyright owner, may violate their rights under federal law:

  • Making a copy of all or a portion of a sound recording onto a computer hard drive, server or other hardware used in connection with a web site or other online forum. This includes converting a sound recording into a file format (such as a .wav or mp3 file) and saving it to a hard drive or server.
  • Transmitting a copy or otherwise permitting users to download sound recordings from a site or other forum.
  • Digitally transmitting to users, at their request, a particular sound recording chosen by or on behalf of the recipient.

If you reproduce or offer full-length sound recordings for download without the authorization of the copyright owner, you are in violation of federal copyright law and could face civil as well as criminal penalties. Placing statements on your web site, such as "for demo purposes only" or that the sound files must be "deleted with 24 hours," does not prevent or extinguish this liability. See Copyright infringement, above, for more information on what is considered "fair use".

There are several entities you may need to contact before you can use recorded music online. First, you should understand that the copyright in a sound recording is distinct from the copyright in the recording's underlying musical composition. Thus, even if you have secured the necessary licenses for publicly performing musical compositions (from, for example, ASCAP, BMI and/or SESAC) or for making reproductions of musical compositions (from, for example, the Harry Fox Agency), these licenses only apply to the musical composition, not the sound recording. Licenses to utilize particular sound recordings must be secured from the sound recording copyright owners -- generally the record company that released the recording.

Child Pornography

Child pornography, material that depicts minors in a sexually explicit way, is illegal. Under the federal child pornography statute (18 USC section 2252), anyone under the age of 18 is a minor. States also have child pornography statues and the age of minority varies by state. Knowingly uploading or downloading child pornography is a federal offense. It is also illegal to advertise or seek the sale, exchange, reproduction or distribution of child pornography. Lewd exhibition of genitals can constitute sexual conduct and therefore, any graphic files containing images of naked children could violate the federal child pornography statute.

Distribution of Pornography to Minors

Possession of non-obscene adult pornography is legal, but it is illegal to distribute to minors.


Obscenity is illegal. Virtually every state and municipality has a statute prohibiting the sale and distribution of obscenity, and the federal government prohibits its interstate transportation. The Supreme Court in Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15, (1973), narrowed the permissible scope of obscenity statutes and applied this three part test to determine constitutionality: (a) whether the average person applying contemporary community standard would find the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest; (b) whether the work depicts or describes in a patently offensive way sexual conduct specifically defined in applicable state law; and (c) whether the work taken as a whole lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

The contemporary community standard is historically the standard of the community in which the material exists. Many online activist argue that the contemporary community standard in cases that arise online ought to be determined by the online community. However, a federal prosecution of a California couple that offered a members-only bulletin board service, concentrating on pornography, resulted in a conviction of the California couple under the federal obscenity statute and Tennessee community standards because a customer in Tennessee had downloaded material over the Internet. See United States v. Thomas, 1996 U.S. App. LEXIS 1069 (6th Cir. Jan. 29, 1996).

Scams and pyramid schemes

Beware of money-making "opportunities" on the Internet. A common scam is the pyramid scheme. You get an e-mail message with a subject like "MAKE MONEY FAST" and it instructs you to send money to the people on the list and then add your name to the bottom of the list and send it on to some number of people. At Cornell, this is considered chain mail, but it is also illegal under 18 U.S.C section 1302. The US Postal Service and the Federal Trade Commission provide information to help individuals identify scams and report them. Pyramid schemes that use US Postal mail to send money are considered mail fraud and can be reported to the USPS.

Federal Computer Security Violations

The primary federal statute regarding computer fraud 18 U.S.C section 1030 was amended in 1996 to protect computer and data integrity, confidentiality and availability. Examples of violations are:

  • Theft of information from computers belonging to financial institutions or federal agencies, or computers used in interstate commerce
  • Unauthorized access to government computers
  • Damage to systems or data (intentionally or recklessly)
  • Trafficking in stolen passwords
  • Extortionate threats to damage computers
  • Computer viruses and worms

Bomb Threats and Hoaxes

It is illegal to send a message via e-mail that threatens other persons or property. While this might seem obvious, every year a number of individuals send what they believe are "hoax messages". Such messages may be investigated by federal authorities with the result that the senders end up with their names in the files of the FBI and/or CIA. This is not an exaggeration!

It also violates Cornell's policies and the Campus Code of Conduct to send certain kinds of hoax messages (for example, April Fool's jokes that appear to be from a professor or some other university official). Such hoaxes constitute forgery and will be referred for appropriate disciplinary action.


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