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Downloading Digital Music: When Free Isn’t Free

Gilles Arbour

There’s an ever-widening grey area when it comes to downloading digital music or sharing copyrighted intellectual property like books and art.

While the Internet shines in terms of the free exchange of ideas and information, there’s an ever-widening grey area when it comes to downloading digital music or sharing copyrighted intellectual property like books and art. However, there’s an increasingly complex array of international laws designed to turn that gray area into clear black and white.

You don’t have to look very hard to find file-sharing sites, many offering a cornucopia of all your favorite music, books and more, all free for the downloading. But look before you click; unless you are downloading a clearly labeled free promotional book or track from an artist’s site, that ebook or music file you just scored on a torrent site is probably copyrighted.

There seems to be a prevailing attitude that once a musician or author has “made it,” they don’t need your money—that sharing a few files won’t hurt anyone. And hey, you bought the CD, so you can do what you want with what’s on it, right? Wrong. You purchased the physical CD, not the blood, sweat and tears it took to produce what’s on it. With few exceptions, the vast majority of artists are “blue collar;” they work hard for their money and need every penny—just like you.

Think about it. Would you continue to show up for work every day if you weren’t paid? Probably not. Here are a few tips to help you make sense out of what’s considered fair and unfair use of copyrighted digital material.

The white:

  • Under US copyright law, you are allowed to transfer legally purchased CDs or individual tracks to another device or CD for personal use. (Laws vary from country to country, but this generally holds true everywhere.)

The black:

  • The moment you send a music track to a friend over the Internet, or upload it to share with others on a torrent site, you’re breaking the law. Even if you did it “just this once.”

    In short, never distribute legally purchased tracks to someone else. Digital music sharing of any kind, in whole or in part, for profit or not, without the express written permission of all parties involved in the production of the copyrighted content is illegal.

    This includes using your favorite pop song to underscore your latest YouTube vacation video, or emailing a sample or two to a friend to help them decide if they want to purchase the album.

When in doubt, refer to the two points above. If what you’re about to do falls somewhere between black and white, it’s safe to assume it isn’t legal. And when you learn via the web that your favorite new artist wasn’t resigned by their record company, it’s probably because of millions of people just like you who shared a file “just this once.”

The above also applies to royalty free music like that produced by Premium Beat. When you purchase a license from us for your production, that doesn’t mean you can do a friend a favor by passing the music on for their production.