Isn’t Copying and Downloading Music Illegal?

record labels rip artists off

record labels rip artists off

No. The only thing that is illegal is taking copyrighted material that you haven’t acquired legitimately – and, of course, distributing copyrighted material that you have acquired legitimately…

In short, you’re well within your rights to copy your own music collection onto your computer and iPod, as long as you don’t then copy the files onto your friends’ computers or iPods. As for music on the Internet, there are numerous legal options, including online services that sell individual tracks to download and keep and others which offer unlimited access to a music archive in return for a monthly fee. There’s also plenty of downloadable music that’s both legal and free: one-off promotions from major labels, for example, and songs by little-known musicians more interested in establishing their name than making a profit.

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However, it’s true that, at present, the majority of music downloaded from the Internet is copyrighted material taken for free from file sharing networks. Though you are unlikely to get prosecuted for taking part in this free-for-all, it is definitely illegal.

What’s DRM?

There is nothing to record industry fears more – understandably enough – than the uncontrolled distribution of its copyrighted music. It’s hard to see how the record companies will ever be able to stop people sharing files that they have copied from their own CDs, even if they succeed in killing off file sharing networks. However, the labels – and online music retailers – do have a strategy for stopping people freely distributing tracks that they’ve purchased and downloaded from legitimate online music stores.

It’s called DRM – digital rights management – and it involves embedding special code into music files (or other formats, such as DVDs) to improve certain restrictions on what you can do with them. For example, music downloaded from the iTunes Music Store has embedded DRM which stops you from making the tracks available on more than a certain number of computers at one time. Other online services, meanwhile, use DRM to stop you burning downloaded files to CD.

Is that an infringement of my rights?

This is a hotly debated issue. Advocates of the free distribution of music see DRM as an infringement of their rights, while others see it as a legitimate was for record labels and retailers to safeguard their products from piracy. So Apple’s adoption of the technology has elicited a mixed response. But the DRM debate is really just one part of a bigger argument about whether it’s ethical to “share” copyrighted music – and other so called intellectual property.

The sharers claim that music is about art not money; that most of the artists whose tracks are being downloaded are already millionaires; that sharing is a great way to experience new music (some of which you might then buy on CD); and that if the record industry is really in trouble, they deserve it for ripping off consumers with overpriced albums for many years. The industry, on the other hand, says that sharing – or theft, as they prefer to put it – deprives artists of royalties and record labels of the money they need to invest in future albums. The result, they claim, will be fewer musicians and less new music.

It’s a complex debate that stretches from the very concept of intellectual property, via different views on the effect of downloading on CD sales, to completely new proposed models for reimbursing musicians, such as the Internet-based “music tax” advocated by some US academics.

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