Music Piracy & Copyrights

by Michael Butler

The term "pirate" first became associated with copyright infringement in 1701 when Daniel Defoe used it in reference to people printing unauthorized copies of one of his poems. With the rise of peer-to-peer file-sharing networks in the 1990s, the term "music piracy" increasingly became used to refer to the unauthorized distribution of copyrighted music on the Internet. However, music piracy can also occur offline.

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Music Copyright

Copyright attaches to music when the artist first fixes the music in tangible form. This means the artist has a copyright interest in his work when he first writes down the score or records the music. The artist has the exclusive right to distribute, sell, copy and publicly perform the music. The artist can sell the copyright or grant others permission to use the music. Anyone who copies, distributes or performs the music in public without permission infringes the copyright and could be called a music pirate. The person who uploads a song on the Internet without permission is engaging in piracy. Everyone who downloads the song is, too.


No one knows how much music piracy harms musicians and the music industry. Some have estimated that all online piracy costs the U.S. economy between $200 and $250 billion a year. The Recording Industry Association of America claims that music sales revenue is down by over 53 percent since peer-to-peer networks began distributing pirated music. The estimates are in dispute. If 1000 people download a song, some estimates count that as 1000 lost sales. However, other people point out that not every downloader would have purchased the song if it weren't available for free online. Additionally, no one knows if the decrease in music sales revenue is solely due to piracy or if other factors are involved. Other people claim that music piracy actually increases music sales.


If the copyright in the music is registered with the U.S. Copyright Office, the copyright holder can sue anyone who pirates the music in civil court to recover damages, costs and attorney's fees. In some circumstances, music piracy can also be criminal. For example, in 2009 a man who uploaded an unreleased Guns N' Roses album was sentenced to one year of probation and two months of house arrest for criminal copyright infringement. Depending upon the scope of the piracy, there may be other criminal charges. For example, on January 19, 2011, seven employees of the website Megaupload were arrested on charges of copyright infringement, conspiracy to commit copyright infringement, racketeering and money laundering. The U.S. Department of Justice also seized their websites.


Music piracy occurs on an international scale and different countries have different laws concerning it. In Switzerland, for example, it is legal to download copyrighted music for personal use. In the United States, copyright holders can use provisions in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to demand that web hosting companies remove copyrighted music found online. Additionally, some people do not believe that piracy is wrong. Political parties and a religion have been formed around creating a right to share copyrighted work online.