The Common Law

Listen Up – Burning CDs and Copyright Law

I've been buying compact discs and then burning copies for friends for years. One friend recently told me that what I am doing is illegal. Is burning copies of my CDs for friends illegal?

You are thumbing through your friend's CD collection when you come across the album that you've been meaning to buy for months. You friend offers to burn you a copy, and you start to look forward to listening to cool new music on your ride home. Everyone has been in that situation, but not many stop to ask a relevant question: Is it illegal to burn CDs for friends?

Technically, the answer is yes. Under general copyright law, distributing a copy of copyrighted materials (like a music CD) can only be done with the permission of the copyright holder (usually the artist or record label). Moreover, the No Electronic Theft Act, a federal law, states that it is a federal crime to reproduce, distribute, or share copies of electronic copyrighted works such as a music CD. This can be true even if you copy and then give the CD away without a commercial purpose or receiving financial gain.

The law creates an exception for "personal use," which means that burning copies is legal if the person plans to use the copies for their own personal use. Practically speaking, this means that once you have bought an album, you can burn it in order to play on your portable music player, computer hard drive, etc. The law, however, does not allow someone to burn a CD and then pass the copy on to others. Passing out burned copies of the CD to family and friends or otherwise giving away a copied CD is not considered "personal use" and would be in violation of federal law. The same general rules apply to other copyrighted materials like movies, video games, or software programs.

Please submit column suggestions, questions, and comments to thecommonlaw@austinchronicle.com. Submission of potential topics does not create an attorney-client relationship, and any information submitted is subject to being included in future columns.

Marrs, Ellis & Hodge LLP, www.jmehlaw.com.

The material in this column is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute, nor is it a substitute for, legal advice. For advice on your specific facts and circumstances, consult a licensed attorney. You may wish to contact the Lawyer Referral Service of Central Texas, a non-profit public service of the Austin Bar Association, at 512-472-8303 or www.austinlrs.com.

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