The Common Law

Listen up – illegal downloads & copyright law

I have downloaded lots of music over the last two years. Sometimes it is clear that what I'm doing is legal, but other times I'm not so sure. I want to try to avoid doing illegal downloads, but how can I know the difference?

You are surfing music-sharing sites and come across the song that has been in your head for weeks. You visualize yourself running on Town Lake and can practically hear the song already. But just before you click away you wonder – is this a legal download?

Despite recent lawsuits and threats of litigation, the American public is clearly enamored with downloading. One recent poll said that more than 23 million American adults downloaded music in 2004. All this downloading raises a sometimes confusing question – what is the difference between a legal and illegal download?

Downloading music is legal depending on where the music comes from and what you do with the files. As a general rule, someone using a nonlicensed P2P (peer-to-peer) network to share or swap music files is likely downloading illegally. Downloading is legal when the source from which the file is received has permission from the copyright owner to provide copies of the music.

Legal music downloads are available from a number of licensed sites that have artist approval. Check out for a list of these sites. Every site will maintain a list of the restrictions on the legally permissible ways to use a copy of the music.

Generally, someone who buys and downloads a song (or album) online can listen to that same file on their portable music player or computer. This person is limited, however, to playing the downloaded file on their own equipment. And while enforcement may be lax, burning a music file for friends or family would also violate federal law, even if the original version of that music file were obtained legally. Take a look at the Recording Industry Association of America's Web site,, for more information on this topic.

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Marrs, Ellis & Hodge LLP,

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

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