Copyright Laws and Downloading Music

By David Carnes

Whether or not you can legally download music from the Internet depends on whether you have permission from the copyright holder to do so. In most cases, free music downloads are illegal. Even paid downloads can be illegal if the copyright holder receives no royalties from the purchase price. The U.S. reserves the right to enforce its copyright laws even against people who download copyrighted music from overseas.

Copyright Law and Music

A composer's original composition is automatically copyrighted the moment he reduces it to a "tangible medium" -- simply whistling an original tune will not copyright it but recording it will. Once the copyright is registered with the U.S. Copyright Office, additional legal protections apply. The most significant among these is that a copyright infringer can be sued for statutory damages of between $750 and $150,000 per infringement, even if the copyright holder cannot prove that the infringement damaged his economic interests. The maximum penalty is more likely to be applied to uploading rather than downloading because the potential economic loss is greater.

The "Fair Use" and "First Sale" Exceptions

The fair use exception to copyright law allows you to use a small portion of a copyrighted song without violating the copyright, as long as the use serves a beneficial purpose such as education, parody or commentary. This exception does not allow you to download an entire song, however. In the event of a lawsuit, a court would weigh several factors, including the size of the portion you used compared to the size of the entire song and whether or not you profited commercially from your use, to determine whether the fair use exception applies. The first sale exception allows you to obtain a second-hand copy of a copyrighted song without paying royalties to the copyright holder. Although the first sale exception would apply to buying a second-hand DVD, it does not apply to downloading music, because downloading requires the creation of a new copy.

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The Recoding Industry Association of America represents several of the United States' largest record labels. Normally, record labels, rather than artists, own the copyrights to the songs written by the artists. In September 2003, the RIAA filed 793 copyright infringement lawsuits against users of peer-to-peer networks. The defendants included users who uploaded music but also included users who only downloaded. Additional enforcement actions have followed this first round of lawsuits.

Legal Downloads

The RIAA reports that, as of the time of publication, over 13 million songs were available for legal download through various services such as iLike, amazonMP3, iTunes and AOL Music. This is because these companies charge the user for downloads and use a portion of the purchase price to pay royalties to the copyright holders.

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Song Lyrics & Copyright Laws


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What Is Copyright Infraction?

With easily copied material available on the Internet, the likelihood of copyright infraction has increased. Copyright is a legal protection for the creators of original literary, musical, artistic and intellectual works. Protection generally lasts until 70 years after the creator’s death. A copyright owner has the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, display and prepare derivative works of the original work. Protection automatically exists as soon as the work is in fixed or tangible form, but optional copyright registration gives the owner the right to sue in federal court to protect the copyright.

Copyright Rules & Time Limits

U.S. federal laws provide the basis for copyright rules and time limits. The general purpose of copyright law is to encourage and protect artistic and literary creativity by giving artists and authors legal protection over their creations. However, because the general public also has an interest in acquiring the right to use those creations, copyrights do not exist in perpetuity.

Are Commercials Copyrighted?

With the free accessibility of information and creative content over the Internet, it can be hard to know what is legally available to take and enjoy for free. It can be confusing to realize that something that may be free and legal to enjoy in one context may not be in another context. Most people think of commercials as a free bit of advertising that they are subjected to when they watch television or listen to the radio. Just because a commercial is broadcast for free through certain media does not mean that it is legal for anybody to upload the commercial on YouTube or post it for download on a website. Commercials are copyrighted, and only authorized parties may broadcast, copy or distribute them.


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