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When Is Downloading Music on the Internet Illegal?

So your daughter wants the new Black Eyed Peas CD, or perhaps you're looking to make a nice Christmas music compilation for playing over the holidays. For many people it is as simple as opening one of many peer-to-peer file share programs, selecting the tracks, downloading and burning the tracks to a CD.

Downloading Music: Legal Issues in Canada and the United States

What isn't so simple about downloading music is the copyright protection laws that people break everyday by downloading some music tracks off the Internet. To make matters even more muddled, some music can be lawfully downloaded, and for those that aren't, laws regarding the sharing and downloading of music on the Internet vary from country to country.

In Canada, for example, downloading copyright music from peer-to-peer networks is legal, but uploading those files is not. Canada has a private copying levy, which grants the right to make personal, noncommercial copies of sound recordings. Canada has imposed levies (fees) on recording mediums like blank CDs and similar items. These levies are used to fund musicians and songwriters for revenues lost  due to consumer copying. For this reason, you do not see huge fines and court cases regarding illegally copied music in Canada, like you see in the U.S.A. Also, Canada initially charged this tax on MP3 players, but a recent Supreme Court decision ruled that the law was written in such a way that these players were exempt from the tax.

The Canadian Conservative government tabled an amendment to the Copyright Bill (C-61) in June of 2008. This bill would have made circumventing all digital locks illegal, and would see statutory damage award of $500 up to up to $20,000 per instance for music downloads, amongst other changes. The government who tabled the bill was defeated before the bill became legislation, however. The Canadian Private Copying Collective is still pursuing the reinstatement of levies on MP3 players in Canada.

In contrast, the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act is much more strict and deems copying of copyrighted music (with the exception of making a copy for your own use) as illegal. The U.S. Code protects copyright owners from the unauthorized reproduction, adaptation or distribution of sound recordings, as well as certain digital performances to the public. In more general terms, it is considered legal for you to purchase a music CD and record (rip) it to MP3 files for your own use only. Uploading these files via peer-to-peer networks would constitute a breach of the law.

In the United States if you copy or distribute copyrighted music you can be prosecuted in criminal court or sued for damages in civil court. Criminal penalties for first-time offenders can be as high as five years in prison and $250,000 in fines, even if you didn't copy and distribute for financial or commercial gain.

At Issue: Revenue Loss

One of the big issues concerning the music industry is, of course, the revenue loss. In theory, if a person is able to download his or her favorite music off the Internet, that person would not need to purchase the CD at a local music store. Every story you read will most likely produce a different set of numbers the music industry claims it has lost due to music downloading. The most common average of numbers seems to sit around a loss of 20 percent globally in sales since 1999.

Organizations that support music sharing and downloading however have thrown a wrench into the statistics released by the music industry as they suggest some of these losses are due to a bad economy and fewer "new releases" hitting the market in some of those years. It is obvious that the music industry has to be losing some money due to Internet music file sharing, but finding the exact amount lost due to music downloading isn't so simple. One thing that is for certain however is that the loss affects the industry, the musicians, and even sound technicians, recording studios, and music stores.

The music industry and even some musicians who feel they are taking a loss due to the sharing of their copy-protected works online have started fighting back, so to speak. In recent months there have been more cases of music piracy heading to the courts. From the creators of peer-to-peer and music sharing program authors, to individual users uploading and sharing copy-protected works online, more people are finding themselves in court trying to avoid paying monetary damages and trying to prove that what they are doing is in fact, fair use.

As mentioned on the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America), the penalties for breaching the copyright act differ slightly depending upon whether the infringing is for commercial or private financial gain. If you think being caught infringing on these copyright laws will result in a small fine or "slap on the wrist", think again. In the U.S.,  the online infringement of copyrighted music can be punished by up to three years in prison and $250,000 in fines. Repeat offenders can be imprisoned up to six years. Individuals also may be held civilly liable, regardless of whether the activity is for profit, for actual damages or lost profits, or for statutory damages up to $150,000 per infringed copyright.

If there are so many lawful issues surrounding the downloading of music, you might wonder why there is such an influx of MP3 players, CD burners, and even software that allows users to easily rip music from a CD to their computer. The simple answer is that these devices do have a legitimate and legal fair use association. As mentioned earlier, you may choose to make your personal back-up copy to use in a MP3 player, or you use Web sites, like iTunes, which offers music that you pay for as you download.


DID YOU KNOW...?

In 2009 four men connected to The Pirate Bay, one of the largest BitTorrent file-sharing sites, were convicted by a Swedish court of contributory copyright infringement. Each defendant was sentenced to 1 year in prison and were ordered to pay a joint fine of 30 million Swedish crowns ($3.58 million).  by industry investigators. [Source: InternetNews.com]




Based in Nova Scotia, Vangie Beal is has been writing about technology for more than a decade. She is a frequent contributor to EcommerceGuide and managing editor at Webopedia. You can tweet her online @AuroraGG.





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