What does it mean to "distribute" child pornography?

Distributing pornography doesn't require elaborate plans. Sending a photo through the Internet will suffice.

By , Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law

The United States has very tough child pornography laws. Possessing even one image depicting a child engaged in sexual conduct can result in a prison sentence. (It may also be a crime when an adult looks at an image that has been altered to depict a child.) Distributing child pornography is punished more severely than merely possessing pornography. For more general information on child pornography, see Child Enticement Laws and Computer Generated Images and Child Enticement.

Defendants can distribute pornography in many different ways. Anytime a person shares nude images of children or images of children engaged in sexual conduct, the person runs the risk of distributing child pornography. This article discusses some of the most common ways to "distribute" pornography.

Sharing Materials

Allowing another person to physically copy child pornography images or movies constitutes distribution of pornography under federal law. (United States v. Roybal, __ F.3d __, No. 12-30350 (9th Cir. 2013).) So does giving away or selling such images or movies. For example, a person who prints a copy of an explicit image of a child and gives that image to someone else has distributed pornography. Likewise, a person who gives to another person a CD that contains video clips depicting children engaged in sexual conduct has also distributed pornography. Finally, a person who sells sexually explicit images of children has distributed child pornography.

File-Sharing and Forwarding Messages

These days, most people who are charged with distributing pornography have shared electronic files and images via the Internet or private networks. Federal courts have determined that allowing another person to copy child pornography through a file-sharing program constitutes "distribution" under federal law. (United States v. Budziak, 697 F.3d 1105, 1109 (9th Cir. 2012).) Similarly, forwarding explicit photos of children via text message (sometimes called "sexting") can be considered distribution of child pornography. Teenagers who have shared explicit photos of themselves or other teens with classmates have been convicted of distributing child pornography. For more information on this crime, see Teen Sexting Laws and Penalties.

Showing Pornography

Can merely showing pornography to another adult constitute distribution? At this point, it is not clear under federal law whether merely allowing another adult to view pornography constitutes distribution. Even if the act does not constitute distribution, this does not mean it is not criminal. The person who shows the image could still be convicted of possession of pornography.

Showing pornography to children, however, can result in serious criminal charges. Again, federal law is unclear on whether merely showing a pornographic image to a child constitutes distributing child pornography. However, in many states it is against the law to show children any pornography -- depicting adults or children -- with the intent of seducing a child (this is called child enticement). For more information on child enticement, see What is the crime of "Child Enticement?"


Federal law usually applies to cases involving the Internet and child pornography, and penalties are severe (including fines and up to 30 years in prison). Each state also has its own laws prohibiting child pornography, and punishment for violations tends to be similarly harsh. Defendants may be prosecuted under state or federal laws, or both.

Many people who are convicted of child pornography are also required to register as sex offenders. Sex offender registration can make it almost impossible to obtain a job, and some states have imposed restrictions on where registered sex offenders can live. For more information, see State Sex Offender Registration, Federal Registration and Civil Commitment Laws for Sex Offenders, and Can a registered sex offender be barred from using social media?

Obtaining Legal Assistance

A criminal record, especially for a sex crime, can make it difficult to obtain a job or a professional license, or even rent an apartment. Of course, these consequences are in addition to incarceration, fines, and sex offender registration. If you are accused of or charged with any offense relating to child pornography, you should talk to a criminal defense attorney. An experienced local attorney can determine whether you have any grounds for dismissal or are in a good position to negotiate a plea. An attorney can help you navigate the criminal justice system and protect your rights.

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