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MP3 : Legal Issues

by Bill Santry
March 9, 2003

College students have changed the world by practicing piracy. That's right: by the blatant trading of copyrighted music in MP3 format, students have voiced their opinion against the outrageous pricing of Compact Discs, and for the free distribution of music. Nevertheless, distributing someone else's work without permission is against the law. This is where the MP3 movement gets into trouble, and we'll help you through this minefield by explaining what is legal about MP3, and what is illegal.

In this article, Help2Go explains:

  • The legal debate over MP3s
  • What you need to know about this Internet phenomenon.

Lawyers, Guns and Money

Stated bluntly: Its is illegal to distribute or possess copyrighted material without the permission of the artist or controlling agency. You know the spiel mentioned at the end of sports broadcasts about "the express, written consent of the National Football League..."? That's what we're talking about here. So if you decide to download the greatest hits of the Village People without the band's "OK", you are breaking the law. If you rip a CD from your collection and send the files to a friend or post them to a web server, you are also guilty.

Proponents of illegal MP3s have tried to rationalize the practice by stating that MP3s allow listeners to hear the music before buying the product and do not represent a significant loss to the music industry. The following list describes the harsh legal reality of MP3s.

  • An MP3 site that has a disclaimer is NOT free from legal responsibilities. The owner can be prosecuted for copyright infringement.
  • The First Amendment does not protect you.
  • MP3 sites physically located outside the US are not immune to prosecution. Uploading and downloading may occur within the US and the site is likely illegal under the laws of the host country.
  • Uploading from a CD that you own IS a copyright infringement, whether you charge for downloads or not.
  • MP3s should not be considered "free advertising" for the artists. Unless the band contacts you personally and endorses the site, don't make the assumption that they are supportive or ambivalent.
  • If you are sharing your MP3s with others, there is a chance they will come after you. Internet Service Providers have been raided in past weeks to get information on their users who are uploading songs. They're leaving the downloaders alone, however. There's just too many of them.

However, here is what you CAN do with MP3s:

  • If you own the CD, you can "rip" the CD into MP3 format on your hard drive. You then have the right to play those MP3 files for personal use.
  • If an MP3 has been posted legally by the artists themselves, then you may freely play that file and send it on to friends. There are many sites on the Internet, such as, that post collections of legal MP3 files.

The Day the Music Died

We won't kid you. There is no Big Brother of the music industry out there looking to grab you and your PC if you download or distribute MP3s. The anonymity of the net and the sheer number of illegal sites make prosecution difficult to say the least. However, we do encourage you to patronize legitimate sites. The technology is great and some artists have been quite creative in using MP3s.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has spent a lot of time and money in litigation, trying to preserve their arcane way of doing business. Having failed, they are now looking for ways to build MP3 files with copyright protection built-in. One such format is the Windows Media (WMA) format from Microsoft. Another format gaining ground is Ogg Vorbis -- horrible name, but it comes from the open-source community, so the format is free. However, none of the new formats has been able to stop the MP3 juggernaut.

We thought that a compromise would eventually be reached, but its clear that the RIAA and the public will never agree on this issue. We'll see increased use of WMA from the recording industry, and Ogg from the techies, but MP3 looks to be the format of choice for the public for years to come.

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