In the past decade, much controversy has arisen from the newfound portability of music. Digital music files and encoding as well as peer-to-peer file sharing have revolutionized the way that music can be distributed, much to the chagrin to the music industry. The free flow of music between users is directly at odds with copyright law, as it should be. Media, although intangible, does have value. And just like radio stations must pay performance royalties and movie theaters must pay licensing fees, everyday users cannot distribute music without authorization and permission from those who own the rights to it.
But where is the line drawn?
Headlines from the past few years have covered the arrest and prosecution of various file sharing kingpins and music piracy offenders, landing them in jail or slapping them with huge fines. With this in mind, a certain amount of paranoia is understandable. For instance, is it illegal to copy a CD to your computer (ripping) and then sync the songs to your iPod? Is it illegal to burn a mix CD for a friend? Is it illegal to burn a backup copy of a CD for yourself?
The law is not incredibly clear on these issues, but in general, you don’t have to worry about going to jail for copying music for your own personal use. Record companies don’t have the time, resources nor motivation to persecute individuals who copy music for their own use and have expressed as much publically. However, a Supreme Court decision in MGM vs. Grokster held that “the fact that permission to make a copy in particular circumstances is often or even routinely granted” does not “necessarily establish that the copying is a fair use when the copyright owner withholds that authorization.” In other words, what allows you to copy CDs to your computer or iPod is permission from the record label, which can rescinded at any moment.
The likelihood of this happening, however, is slim. But what will get you in trouble is illegally distributing music that you’ve ripped. This includes sharing your music over peer-to-peer networks, uploading music and making it available for download or burning CDs and giving them away without permission. (Yes, this includes mix CDs and mix tapes—though no one has ever been prosecuted for distributing a mix tape.)
Bottom-line: You probably won’t go to jail for ripping CDs, copying them to your iPod or sharing them with a few close friends. But that doesn’t mean it’s not illegal, nor is it protected as Fair Use. The real reason why you won’t likely get charged is because it’s very difficult to detect and not particularly worthwhile for record companies to pursue on a granular level. What will likely catch the eye and ire of copyright enforcement officials is distributing music. Your chances of being caught for illegally sharing music over the Internet is even greater, since many Internet Service Providers (ISPs) monitor for such activity, since their failure to quell music piracy may implicate them as well.
So, rest easy. You can safely rip your music for your own personal use. But avoid sharing it over the Internet.