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Digital Music 101: Laying Down the Law
Despite all the controversy surrounding Napster, it's amazing how many people don't really know what's legal and what's illegal when it comes to digital music. Is Napster illegal? Is Can you get busted just by visiting a site? Here's the deal:

Any digital music format, including streaming media or MP3, is perfectly legal. How you use a digital music format, however, can be against the law. The issue here is copyright. In a nutshell, any song or piece of art or lyric created by your favorite band is protected by copyright law. Since artists own their work, it's up to them whether or not they should get paid and, furthermore, if and how their work should be distributed in the first place.

This means that no one can legally exchange digitally converted versions of existing music, without the permission of the artist. The multitudes of artists on, for example, have given their permission for people to sample their songs. Britney Spears , however, doesn't want you to get "Oops!...I Did It Again" for nothing. So if you see a site offering her songs for free, they're illegal.

Now, you might be wondering, what about making audiotapes at home? We've all been doing that for years. How is MP3 any different? Basically, it's not. You are allowed to make copies of music or other forms of art for your own personal use (since, presumably, you paid for the CD in the first place); you just can't distribute them to others or receive them for others.

Does anyone actually get busted? Jeffrey Levy did. Last year, the twenty-two-year-old University of Oregon student went down in history as the first person convicted of piracy under the No Electronic Theft act. This came after he was caught by university officials for posting almost 1,000 illegal MP3 songs on his Web site. Though he faced three years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines, Levy instead received two years probation and limited Internet access.

Still, Levy has been the exception. Most people never do get arrested or even caught. But that doesn't mean they're free of prosecution. Record labels are becoming a bit more diligent about tracking down illegally distributed music. The Recording Industry Association of America or RIAA ( has filed numerous lawsuits against people who have posted pirated songs on their sites. As a result, these pirates usually end up shutting down their sites voluntarily rather than facing prosecution.

One way that the industry is fighting against pirates is through what's called the Secure Digital Music Initiative or SDMI ( Over 100 companies, including members of the RIAA, have supported this idea. The SDMI would place a special digital watermark on music released on CDs. If someone makes a pirated digital version of this music, players equipped with SDMI protection features will prevent the illegal songs from being played.

SDMI is still being negotiated and developed; there's not telling if and when such a measure might be taken. But clearly there's a lot at stake for electronic music distribution. Not everything online is meant to be free.

What all this means is that, technically, you take a risk every time you download an illegal song. Will you get nabbed? I doubt it. As more and more media search tools like Gnutella, Scour and Napster take hold, it's going to be virtually impossible for the recording industry to go after every single person who snarks the new Metallica single. Whether or not the band goes after you, of course, is another story.

(July 24, 2000)

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