Unauthorized Downloading, Sharing & Copying Of Music Is Against The Law

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Copyright law protects the value of creative work. When you make unauthorized copies of someone’s creative work, you are taking something of value from the owner without his or her permission.

Most likely, you’ve seen the FBI warning about unauthorized copying at the beginning of a movie DVD. Though you may not find these messages on all compact discs or music you’ve downloaded from the Internet, the same laws apply.

U.S Federal law provides severe civil and criminal penalties for the unauthorized reproduction, distribution, rental or digital transmission of copyrighted sound recordings. (Title 17, United States Code, Sections 501 and 506).

It seems like a simple enough concept: If its against the law – don’t do it. But all too often over-eager music fans unknowingly (and in some instances knowingly) contribute to the destruction of the music industry by obtaining music illegally.

It may seem like a rather “harmless crime” to focus on when the world has seemingly bigger problems to deal with. However by that logic, where does one draw the line ethically? According to a study by Universal Music in July 2015, the sale of music recordings would be 17 times higher without piracy.


Understanding Copyright Law

Making unauthorized copies of copyrighted music recordings is against the law and may subject you to civil and criminal liability. A civil lawsuit could hold you responsible for thousands of dollars in damages. Criminal charges may leave you with a felony record, accompanied by up to five years of jail time and fines up to $250,000. You may find this surprising. After all, compact discs may be easily be copied multiple times with inexpensive CD burning technology.

Further, when you’re on the Internet, digital information can seem to be as free as air. U.S. copyright law does in fact provide full protection of sound recordings, whether they exist in the form of physical CD’s or digital files. Regardless of the format at issue, the same basic principle applies: music sound recordings may not be copied or distributed without the permission of the owner.
A long series of court rulings has made it very clear that uploading and downloading copyrighted music without permission on person to person networks constitutes infringement and could be a crime.


Examples of Online Copyright Infringement

  • You download an app on your smartphone that allows you to ‘strip’ the audio from any YouTube music video and permanently keep that audio in your music collection.
  • You make an MP3 copy of a song because the CD you bought expressly permits you to do so. But then you put your MP3 copy on the Internet, using a file-sharing network, so that millions of other people can download it.
  • Even if you don’t illegally offer recordings to others, you join a file-sharing network and download unauthorized copies of all the copyrighted music you want for free from the computers of other network members.
  • In order to gain access to copyrighted music on the computers of other network members, you pay a fee to join a file-sharing network that isn’t authorized to distribute or make copies of copyrighted music. Then you download unauthorized copies of all the music you want.
  • You transfer copyrighted music using an instant messaging service.
  • You have a computer with a CD burner, which you use to burn copies of music you have downloaded onto writable CDs for all of your friends.
  • Someone you don’t know e-mails you a copy of a copyrighted song, which you forward to your friends.

When It Comes to Copying Music, What’s Okay And What’s Not:

Technology has made digital copying easier than ever. But just because advances in technology make it possible to copy music doesn’t mean it’s legal to do so. Here are tips on how to enjoy the music while respecting rights of others in the digital world. Stick with these, and you’ll be doing right by the people who created the music.

Internet Copying

  • It’s okay to download and stream music from sites authorized by the owners of the copyrighted music, whether or not such sites charge a fee.
  • It’s never okay to download unauthorized music from pirate sites, or peer-to-peer systems.
  • It’s never okay to make unauthorized copies of music available to others (that is, uploading music) on peer-to-peer systems, or sharing via private messaging systems.

Copying CDs

  • It’s okay to copy music onto special Audio CD-R’s, mini-discs, and digital tapes (because royalties have been paid on them) – but not for commercial purposes.
  • Beyond that, there’s no legal “right” to copy the copyrighted music on a CD onto a CD-R. However, burning a copy of 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
    • The copy is just for your personal use. It’s not a personal use – in fact, it’s illegal – to give away the copy or lend it to others for copying.
    • The owners of copyrighted music have the right to use protection technology to allow or prevent copying.
    • Remember, it’s never okay to sell or make commercial use of a copy that you make.

Are there occasionally exceptions to these rules? Sure. A “garage” or unsigned band might want you to download its own music; but, bands that own their own music are free to make it available legally by licensing it. And, remember that there are lots of authorized sites where music can be downloaded for free. Better to be safe than sorry—don’t assume that downloading or burning is legal just because technology makes it possible.

Enjoy the music and show your appreciation of an artists talent by purchasing or streaming music from authentic, legal websites. Music theft happens everywhere, and it’s important for fans to help look out for illegal activity that damages the creative freedom of the artists you love. By doing the right thing, you’ll be doing your part to make sure that the music keeps coming.


This post includes excerpts from The Recording Industry Association of America stance on piracy and is intended to educate consumers about the issues associated with the downloading, uploading and consumer copying of music. It is not intended to offer legal advice or be a comprehensive guide to copyright law and the commercial uses of music.

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