Illegal Downloading: Not Worth the Risk
Illegal downloading is generally a low risk activity; this is because the internet is a massive source of information and is relatively difficult to police. Besides the scope of the information superhighway, the question of whose right it is to police the World Wide Web is also in play. Not surprisingly, the accountability of the law is being held and enforced by those with financial motivation: copyright holders.
Illegal downloads are like drugs: getting caught using is deserving of a slap on the hand, maybe a fine, and jail if you mouth off to the police officer. Posession with intent to distribute, on the other hand, can cause you quite a mess if it's proven against you. The difference here is that the creators of movie and music products are actively seeking to catch illegal downloaders and punish them, whereas drug producers rely on distribution for their trade.
It's the movies you have never heard of that you should be worried about. When these no name movies flop, producers often turn to unscrupulous means to turn a profit. They have the advantage, because they have high-powered lawyers and money on their side. A movie file with a tracking device (a segment of code that reports back to the company via internet) gets downloaded onto your computer. That's step one. Many downloading services offer the ability to share files with others via the internet.
IF YOU WANT TO AVOID RECEIVING LETTERS FROM LAW FIRMS, UNCHECK THIS SHARED OPTION!
When you choose to allow your downloaded files to be shared, you allow others to dip into your computer and receive files from you. This is one method in which files propagate around the internet, and it basically turns your computer into an illegal downloading server. To reduce your risk, do not share files. To eliminate your risk, don't download, period.
The fines for illegal downloading can be quite steep. Law firms always operate by the same process: they send you an intial letter with a certain bill amount as a courtesy, noting that they will increase fees and finally take you to court if you fail to pay by a certain date. Not surprisingly, paying the fees is significantly cheaper than fighting in court (even if you win). It's a payday for the law firm no matter which way, and the aggressors hold most of the cards here. Your best interest really is to pay the problem away, or to stop downloading in the first place.
Typical fine: $1500 for a movie, or $10,000 or more if it gets to court and you lose, plus court fees (which they will undoubtedly open a new suit for). If you win, you'll probably spend $3,500 or more yourself proving your innocence. This type of behavior represents entrapment, guilty even when proven innocent, and is a Constitutional violation of citizens' rights, but the reality is that you are better off not fighting. The legal system is programmed against the individual citizen, but the fact remains that it is much better to buy a $5-$20 movie than pay a gigantic fee like that.