The Law Dictionary

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Laws Against Downloading Music

Video may have killed the radio star, but the Internet killed the record store. The music industry has not been the same ever since a file sharing software application called Napster was released right at the end of the 20th century. These days, music lovers can download songs and albums from a variety of online services, and sometimes they may be breaking the law while doing so.

When Downloading is Illegal

When a person purchases a song from iTunes, a file transfer or download must take place for the purpose of concluding the transaction. In a way, the music buyer is purchasing a license to enjoy a song under certain terms. This is legal insofar as being an online retail transaction.

When a person uses a peer-to-peer (P2P) client to download a song that someone else is sharing from their computer, an act of copyright infringement might occur. It the individual or entity who holds copyright to the song did not authorize download thereof on a P2P network, an illegal activity may have taken place.

Federal Laws that Apply to Music Downloads

In the United States, a couple of federal laws help protect digital copyright works and intellectual property:

1 – The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998

The DMCA is a complex and controversial law that was enacted before Napster arrived during the Clinton era. The DMCA has both civil and criminal provisions. Downloading music from a P2P network such as BitTorrent may result in a fine and could also open the door for the holder of the copyright to file a lawsuit and seek monetary relief.

Under the DMCA, criminal penalties may be imposed on individuals who use technology to defeat digital copyright protection measures.

2 – The No Electronic Theft Act (NET) of 1997

Although this federal law was mostly enacted to protect software, it can also be applied to other digital copyright works. Whereas the DMCA can be broadly applied to individuals who engage in P2P file sharing, NET focuses on piracy schemes on a commercial scale. In general, if the value of the pirated works is $1,000 or less, the offense is prosecuted as a misdemeanor. When the value is higher than $2,500, the offense is treated as a felony.


This article contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. The Law Dictionary is not a law firm, and this page does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

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