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.

Protect against infringement by registering a copyright. Get Started Now


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.

Protect against infringement by registering a copyright. Get Started Now
Most Frequent Copyright Violations


Related articles

Pros & Cons of Copyright Laws

A copyright is a legal monopoly, granted by the federal government, that allows the creator of an original work of authorship to prevent others from using, displaying, profiting from or adapting that work. Copyrights protect both artistic works and computer software programs. Copyright law is designed to balance the economic and moral rights of creators with the interest of society in using and enjoying works of authorship.

Types of Copyright Law

Originally, copyright law in the United States was protected by common law that originated in England. Later the U.S. Congress passed the Copyright Act -- found in Title 17 of the U.S. Code -- and amended it several times. The Copyright Act modified but did not repeal common law. In addition, the U.S. has signed copyright treaties with other nations. This legal background has given rise to several different types of copyright law.

The Right to Sell Copyrighted Material

A copyright is a bundle of rights that includes a legal monopoly on the right to sell a particular work of authorship. If you wish to sell material copyrighted by someone else, or to sell a work that incorporates such material, you might be able to rely on one of two strategies: either take advantage of exceptions to copyright protection or obtain permission from the copyright holder.

Related articles

Song Lyrics & Copyright Laws

Copyright law protects all aspects of an artistic work, as long as the work is original and has been reduced to a ...

About Copyright Laws for Movies

A copyright provides a legal monopoly on an original work of authorship, allowing the copyright holder to sue anyone ...

Implications of Copyright Law

A copyright grants its holder a legal monopoly on the use and commercial exploitation of an original work of ...

Copyright Laws for Using Someone Else's Work

A copyright protects original works in tangible form, such as manuscripts, music recordings or computer code, from ...

Browse by category
Ready to Begin? GET STARTED