MP3 Sharing Isn’t Piracy – and It Isn’t Legal, Either

I can’t recall the last time I bought a music CD. It’s probably been several years, so I’ve definitely been contributing to the slump in music sales.

Funny thing is, I haven’t been downloading MP3s, which the RIAA sees as the only significant reason CD sales are down. I’d suggest things like the economy and the price of albums might be a factor, but the RIAA would rather point the finger at Napster, Kazaa, and other methods of swapping music files.


It’s a well known fact that “music piracy” is rampant. A lot of people are ripping their CDs and sharing their MP3 files on the Internet, many not realizing there may be legal implications to their actions.

After all, you can record a song off the radio, just as you can record a television show or movie with your VCR. That’s legal. And you can legally copy music you own, such as making a cassette tape from an LP or CD – or ripping MP3s to play on your iPod.

Where things get murky is when you decide to allow others to access your music collection. It’s no more legal to share your MP3 collection over the Internet than it is for you to loan an album to a friend so they can copy it to tape. That goes beyond the personal use part of copyright law.

You own the album. You have the right to listen to the music. You have the right to make your own copy. But you don’t have the right to give away the copies you make; that’s a violation of copyright.


Piracy used to be clear-cut. It had to be an act of murder or robbery on the high seas, not within a nation’s territorial waters. And definitely not on land.

Yet piracy is the term applied most often applied to the unauthorized copying and distribution of software – and later to music swapping. The BSA, RIAA, and MPAA have deliberately picked a loaded term to make it a no brainer. Of course piracy is wrong.

Glossing over the fact that piracy is legally limited to actions at sea, we can easily see that sharing MP3s doesn’t constitute an act of murder. Hence, the MPAA must consider music sharing as robbery.

Robbery is defined as the theft of money or property from a person by force or threat of force. Nothing of the kind takes place when people share their MP3s on the Internet. There is no force or threat of force. There is no money or physical property taken.

File sharing doesn’t meet the definition of burglary, which is not done in the presence of a person, since nothing physical is taken. Nor does it meet the definition of theft, since nobody is permanently deprived of anything through file swapping.


The RIAA is suffering from the weak economy just like the rest of us, but rather than live with it or do something to improve music sales, they are attacking their own customers, extorting the life savings of college students, and accusing swappers of stealing, which is defined as “the unlawful taking, carrying, leading, or riding away of property from the possession of another person.”

Here’s one of their latest sound bites:

“Stealing music over the Internet is no different
than shoplifting CDs out of a record store.”

It’s simply not true. Sharing music over the Internet is vastly different from shoplifting CDs from a record store, just as copying software is vastly different from stealing programs from a computer store.

In the case of shoplifting, something tangible has been taken. There is a physical product with a known monetary value that has been illegally appropriated by the thief. The record company has paid money to produce it, and the store has paid money to stock it.

That’s not the case with sharing MP3s. No physical product has been taken. No record company or store is being ripped off, since you must own the CD before you can rip an MP3 from it. Somewhere along the line somebody bought the album. This cannot be considered stealing, since no property has been taken.


The electronic world is different from the physical world. A file can be downloaded millions of times and duplicated on millions of computers, but no property has moved. This is the thing the RIAA doesn’t understand when it uses loaded words like stealing and piracy.

I am not trying to excuse file swappers from their obligations under copyright law. I am only trying to point out that we cannot accept the terms the RIAA uses without ceding the entire case to them.

Copyright Violation

What’s generally happening in the world of file swapping (whether MP3s, software, or movies) is copyright violation. Some file swapping is perfectly legal, but what the BSA, RIAA, and MPAA are upset by is the illegal distribution of copyrighted material by those who have no right to distribute it.

Under copyright law, you have a right to make a personal copy of something you own for your own personal use. You don’t have the right to sell or give away the copies, and if you do sell or give away the original you are supposed to destroy any copies you have made since the right to a personal copy goes with the original product.

This Could Cost You

The RIAA needs to boost revenues, and if people aren’t buying CDs, they’ll resort to deception and legal extortion. “You are a thief. Give us your life savings, and we’ll leave you alone. Otherwise get a good lawyer.”

If you swap files, that doesn’t make you a thief. It makes you someone who violates copyright, and that’s what the RIAA will charge you with if they decide you’re worth pursuing.

Thanks to the iTunes Music Store, the RIAA can now put a very tangible price on individual tunes – 99¢. If you’ve shared your MP3 library and allowed others to download 10,000 tracks from your computer, the RIAA can make a very strong case that your sharing has a value of $9,900. And then they can go for, say, triple damages.

Are your pockets deep enough to pay for the tunes you’ve shared? If not, I suggest you stop sharing them immediately. Stay off the radar. You cannot afford to get caught.

It may not technically be piracy or theft, but copyright violation can cost you dearly. Not only that, it’s just plain wrong to distribute copyrighted material without a contract allowing you to do so.

If you’re a swapper, do the smart thing and stop. The bank account you save could be your own.

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