Music Download Copyright Laws

Music copyright laws are sometimes very confusing. According to a 2007 Los Angeles Times poll, 69 percent of teenagers believed it was legal to copy a CD they own and give it to a friend. A similar Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) study shows that half of college students download movies and music illegally.

There are strict rules that determine what is and isn't copyright infringement. There are stiff penalties for lawbreakers---just ask Jammie Thomas-Rasset, a Minnesota woman recently ordered to pay $1.9 million for downloading 24 songs.


Copyright laws protect the value and revenue of a musician or other creator's work. Illegally copying music is theft. The income and revenue that artist would have received from a CD or song purchase is stolen from him because the illegal copy is never paid for.

Participants in file sharing and illegal downloading often justify their actions by saying that copying a few songs cannot have a significant financial impact. However, the overall effect of illegal copyright infringement is staggering.

The Industry for Policy Innovation conducted a study on the true cost of copyright piracy to the U.S. economy. This study reflected that illegal copying of movies, music, business software and video games "costs the U.S. economy $58.0 billion in total output, costs American workers 373,375 jobs and $16.3 billion in earnings, and costs federal, state, and local governments $2.6 billion in tax revenue."

The Law

While movies often carry an explicit FBI warning, music doesn't. However, the same law applies.

Federal law carries several penalties for copyright infringement. This includes the unauthorized reproduction, distribution, rental or digital transmission of copyrighted sound recordings. The FBI investigates violations of this law and prosecutes violators. Violators guilty of criminal copyright infringement are subject to heavy fines and even jail time.

What's Legal

The RIAA maintains that it is legal to download music from sites authorized by the copyright holders. These include, but are not limited to, AmazonMP3, BestBuy,, Yahoo! Music, and CD Baby. A list of more legal music sites can be accessed on the RIAA website.

It is also acceptable to copy music onto analog cassettes and specially designated audio CD-R's, mini-discs and digital tapes, because royalties have been paid on those items. None of these copies can be used for commercial purposes.

However, there is fine print to even this clause. The RIAA website states, "There's no legal 'right' to copy the copyrighted music on a CD onto a CD-R. However, burning a copy of the CD onto a CD-R, or transferring a copy onto your computer hard drive or your portable music player, won't usually raise concerns so long as the copy is made from an authorized original CD that you legitimately own (and) the copy is just for your personal use."

What's Illegal

File sharing is expressly illegal in all of its forms. It is illegal to use a peer-to-peer file sharing network to upload or download music. Even if the file sharing program requires a fee to join, it may not be authorized. Any other form of file sharing -- via email, instant message, website, or other medium---is forbidden without express, written permission from the copyright holder.

It is also illegal to burn copies of songs to a CD and distribute it to friends, family or any other person. It does not matter if the songs in question were downloaded or purchased at a store---unauthorized distribution without the express, written permission of the copyright holder is illegal.

In recent years, the RIAA and other music industry organizations have contended that buying a CD and copying it to a computer is also copyright infringement. This act, called 'personal use,' is common among consumers, as it provides a reliable backup of information and allows purchased CDs to be transferred to an MP3 player or computer for playback. No specific judgment has decided whether or not this is legal or illegal yet.

Lawsuits and Penalties

First-time copyright violators who copy or distribute hard copies (CDs) of songs can be imprisoned for five years and be accountable for $250,000 in fines per copyright infringed. That means 10 songs can cost up to $2,500,000 in fines. Additional civil penalties, which punish for damages, carry a minimum fine of $750 per song but can range into the thousands of dollars.

The No Electronic Theft Law, also known as the NET Act, provides the same violations for digital recordings. Even if there was no monetary, financial, or commercial gain, a consumer can be imprisoned for five years and charged $250,000 in fines per infringement. The copyright holders can also sue for $150,000 in statutory damages for each copyright stolen.

A recent copyright scandal involved a 30-year-old woman from Minnesota. Jammie Thomas-Rasset illegally downloaded 24 songs and shared more than 1,700 files on a peer-to-peer file sharing service known as Kazaa. When this was discovered, she was offered a settlement but decided to let the case go to jury. She was originally told to pay $220,000 for the 24 songs. During the appeal process, a jury found against her again---this time assessing a $1.9 million fine.

Overall, there have been more than 35,000 lawsuits against online music pirates since 2003. Most have settled instead of going to trial, but all have paid stiff penalties for their crimes.

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