The RIAA lawsuits clarified once and for all
"Dinner tables the country over have become sites for conversations about the RIAA and its clampdown on file sharers. Television sound bites and short newspaper items are making a lot of noise about the lawsuits, but their occasional abridgement and misstatement of the facts have made people more confused than enlightened--and, in some cases, downright paranoid about using a computer to access music. It's time to set the record straight, so I'm going to debunk the most-common myths surrounding the latest round in the RIAA's battle against its customers.
Myth No. 1: The RIAA will sue you for downloading music.
As I mentioned in a previous column, the RIAA is currently suing only users who share more than 1,000 songs. This doesn't mean that it is legal to download copyrighted music without permission of the copyright owner. It's not (see below). At this time, however, it appears that the RIAA is not targeting people who download copyrighted music. They are going after uploaders, not downloaders, which means that as long as you aren't sharing a significant number of files, the ongoing purge will pass you by.
Myth No. 2: Downloading music from the Internet is illegal.
Although absolutely untrue, this is perhaps the saddest side effect of the RIAA crackdowns. There are plenty of legal places to get MP3s: Epitonic, iTunes Music Store, BuyMusic, Listen.com Rhapsody, and eMusic all offer free and/or legal downloads from every type of artist imaginable. Even the "illegal" networks have plenty of songs that are perfectly legal to download. Some of these have been designated by the copyright holder as such using the EFF's OAL (Open Audio License), or a Creative Commons license. An interesting side note: in this article from the Oregonian, the first person to be busted for online copyright infringement says that after his bust, "[computers] lost their charm for me...[downloading music] doesn't even occur to me now." He was only the first potential paying online music consumer the labels have alienated; recent media coverage of the current suits are sure to add significantly to that number.
Myth No. 3: Downloading copyrighted material without permission is legal.
In the interest of fairness, I must point out that downloading copyrighted material without permission is 100 percent illegal. When you download an MP3, you make a copy of that file from a remote location onto your hard drive. Copying the song is the exclusive right of the copyright holder, and doing so without permission is an act of copyright infringement.
Myth No. 4: Downloading a song illegally is just like stealing it from a store.
This old chestnut has been bandied about quite a bit in the past five years, but that doesn't make it true. CDs are physical things, and copyright is an abstract right. As Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun wrote (somewhat obliquely) in 1985, "[copyright infringement] does not easily equate with theft, conversion, or fraud...The infringer invades a statutorily defined province guaranteed to the copyright holder alone. But he does not assume physical control over copyright; nor does he wholly deprive its owner of its use." There you have it: Infringing on copyright is materially different from stealing physical CDs, according to the highest court in the land (the "thief" in question was acquitted of theft in the case in question, Dowling v. United States). While not definitive, Blackman's statement shows that there is substantial doubt as to whether copyright infringement should be equated with outright theft.
Myth No. 5: Every infringing download represents lost sales.
The labels love to recite this statistic in various forms, but anyone with an ounce of common sense can tell you that just because someone was willing to download something for free, it doesn't mean they would have bought the song on an album. Most downloaders grab lots of stuff they would never, in a million years, plunk down their hard-earned money for. Therefore, those downloads do not represent lost sales, no matter what the RIAA's public relations team tells the papers."
NOTE: The RIAA has no jurisdiction whatsoever outside the USA.