Music falls under the category of intellectual property, which encompasses creations of the mind, including art and literature. When you purchase music on a CD or other format, you are effectively purchasing the right to listen to that recording and to use it for selected purposes outlined in fair use law. You must, however, have purchased the recording: illegal downloading is technically theft of intellectual property and carries potentially heavy penalties if you are caught.
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Whether you can be punished for illegally downloading music depends largely on where you live. Intellectual property theft, which includes downloading, is considered a federal crime under the Digital Millennium Act and cases of such theft are investigated by the FBI. In Canada, on the other hand, downloading music is not illegal: Canadian law allows for making copies of music for personal use, and a levy is in place on recording mediums like blank CDs to compensate musicians and music publishers for lost revenue from downloads. Uploading and sharing music online, however, is still illegal in Canada. The United Kingdom, meanwhile, has no fair use stipulation in its copyright law, and severe cases of downloading can be punished with up to 10 years in prison.
In the United States, the most common penalties for illegally downloading are monetary ones. In 2009, CNN reported on the first case of illegal downloading to go to trial, a case in which the defendant was ultimately fined £1.2 million for downloading 24 songs. Under the Digital Millennium Act, first-time offenders can be fined up to £162,500 or be sentenced to five years in prison. If the copyright holders, usually represented by the Recording Industry Association of America, choose, downloaders may also be held liable in civil court and sued for damages, which can run as high as £97,500 per copyright infringed.
The music industry has seen a decline in the sale of CDs since 1999. The British newspaper The Independent reported that, while 78 million singles were sold that year, a mere 8.6 million were sold in 2008. This loss of sales and revenue has spurred the industry to try to end downloading, though stiff legal penalties have done little to deter downloaders.
Online retailers sell digital downloads to capitalise off the downloading craze, but a pay-per-download scheme lacks incentive when the same download is available for free elsewhere on the Internet. Some artists have chosen to make downloads available for free to get their music out to fans. British rock act Radiohead took this to another level in 2007 when they released their album, "In Rainbows," online and asked fans to pay what they wanted, or even nothing at all. While most fans paid nothing for the album, sales of "In Rainbows" surpassed those of the band's previous album. The experiment was touted as a financial success for the band and considered a revolution in the music industry.
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- CNN; "Woman Fined to the Tune of £1.2 Million for Illegal Downloads"; Elianne Friend; June 2009
- Webopedia; "When is Downloading Music on the Internet Illegal?"; Vangie Beal; December 2004
- World Intellectual Property Organization: Understanding Copyright
- The Independent: Illegal Downloading: What Happens If You're Caught?
- Chicago Tribune; "Turn It Up: Radiohead's 'In Rainbows' Experiment Pays off with 3 Million Sales"; Greg Kot; October 2008