The cost of free music

May 20, 2003|by ANDREA ROWLAND

It's so easy. All you need is a computer with a sound card, speakers and MP3 software, an Internet connection and a little patience to build a digital library of your favorite music. Add a CD burner, and you can copy free tunes for your friends.

But that free music can come with a hefty price tag.

Copying and distributing copyrighted music without permission can lead to heavy fines and maybe even jail time. Just ask the college students in Michigan, New Jersey and New York who were recently busted for music file sharing. The The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) sued the four students, who hosted Internet sites that enabled users to download copyrighted material. Each student was fined $150,000 per file, but the settlement reached required each student to pay a fine of between $12,000 to $17,500 to the recording industry.

Under the No Electronic Theft Act, penalties for copying or distributing copyrighted music without permission can total five years in prison and $250,000 in fines. The copyright holders can also sue for up to $150,000 in statutory damages for each of their copyrighted works that are illegally copied or distributed.


Music downloading critics say copying and sharing music without permission is stealing. They say music file sharing is much to blame for declining CD sales. They say it hurts the livelihood of those in the music industry. And they back their arguments with copyright laws and court rulings that have established big fines and jail time for people convicted of downloading and sharing copyrighted music without permission.

On the flip side, downloading supporters say music file sharing on the Internet introduces artists and their music to a bigger audience than ever before. The free music lures these listeners to record stores to buy the CDs that contain favorite downloaded songs, and to artists' concerts to hear the music live, supporters say.

The nation's struggling economy and the rising costs of CDs are several reasons downloading supporters give for the drop in CD sales that many in the music industry blame on downloading.

Rob Hovermale, music resource specialist for the Washington County Board of Education, compared today's trend of downloading and sharing music files to the older practice of copying records onto cassette tapes and trading them with friends.

"Kids just have to watch how they use (file sharing technology)" and make sure they "know the laws" until the legal issues surrounding music downloading and file sharing are completely resolved, Hovermale said.

"The jury's still out on downloading. It's not a black-and-white issue," he said. "Everyone acts like it's a negative thing, but I've heard that a lot of people who download music also go out and buy the CDs with their favorite songs. That's something the music industry needs to look into."

Some artists and groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation - a civil liberties organization that works to protect rights in the digital world - say peer-to-peer music sharing can help musicians, especially fledgling artists, by spreading their work to millions of new listeners. Grammy-winning musician Janis Ian has called free Internet downloads "good for the music industry and its artists."

"Every act that can't get signed to a major, for whatever reason, can reach literally millions of new listeners, enticing them to buy the CD and come to the concerts," Ian is quoted as saying on the EFF Web site.

More than 2.6 billion files are downloaded every month, according to Music United For Strong Internet Copyright, a network of songwriters, musicians and performers dedicated to preventing the illegal reproduction of music.

About 45 percent of the more than 60,000 American teenagers surveyed in a 2002 USA WEEKEND magazine poll said they download music from the Internet, and 54 percent of those teens said they "see nothing wrong" with the practice. Fifteen percent of the teens surveyed said that downloading "cheats the artists, but I still think it's okay," according to published poll results.

And 5 percent of the teens surveyed said they didn't understand the issues involved in copyright infringement.

Students heading off to college should make a point of knowing their school's rules regarding downloading.

The RIAA's definition of copyright is the protection of the original expression of an idea expressed in the form of music, artwork or written material. A copyright is infringed when a song is made available to the public by uploading it to an Internet site for other people to download, sending it through an e-mail or chat service or otherwise reproducing or distributing copies without authorization from the copyright owner, according to the RIAA.

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