The introduction of music download sites to the internet has revolutionized the way we consume music. Though easier and much less expensive for consumers to get their hands on the latest music from the comfort of their home, the break through began with an illegal method of downloading music which unfortunately opened the door to others that are still around to this day. It is up to the consumer to be educated on which sites and services are legal to use, and which are not. To better understand the legality of music download sites, it is best to take a look at the first popular illegal online music download solution.
The start of illegal music downloads.
In 1999, the world was introduced to the first music file sharing software called Napster. Created by Shawn Fanning, the technology allowed users to share their music files freely with other users. This would bypass the entire legal music market and let anyone who could operate a computer and simple software get their hands on the music they wanted absolutely free. The software quickly became noticed as violating copyright laws as it never had permission from the artists or their labels to distribute these files.
Metallica, a heavy metal act, discovered one of their demo songs "I Disappear" was circulating and even played on certain radio stations before the track was ever released. They were of the first to file a lawsuit against Napster for copyright infringement. A month later, Dr. A Dre also filed a lawsuit asking Napster to remove all of his content from the service. These acts, along with many record labels pursued Napster in court for the massive copyright violation.
The media embarked on the story and in turn, indirectly made the service even more popular, putting a spotlight on music file sharing and increasing the amount of active users to over 26 million in Napster's final stages.
On June 3rd, 2002, Napster filed for bankruptcy but the damage was done. The world was introduced to file sharing and online music consumption. Many imitation sites and software sprung up after this incident and to this day, you can still find illegal peer-to-peer file sharing solutions offering illegal music downloads.
So what makes a music download site legal or illegal?
There are very basic principles a music download site needs to follow in order to provide legal music downloads. Simply put, they need permission to distribute each music file on the site from whoever owns the copyright of, or legally represents the music. This can be either the artist, the artists publishing company, and / or in most cases, the artists record label.
In our first example, Napster took copyrighted material and without permission decided to make these files freely available. Neither the artist nor record companies were compensated. This is where the big problem lies. Music is like any other product on the market. Someone or a team of people put time towards creating a song or album and are selling their product. If you want the product, you have to pay a legal distributor of that product so everyone who was involved in creating it gets compensated for their work. If they are not, and have not agreed to make it available for free, you are stealing their product.
With music, stealing songs is infringing on copyright laws which are in place to protect artists and labels, and assure they are in control of who can distribute their art while in turn, getting compensated when someone does buy a copy of a song or album.
I did not know the site was illegal. It is not my fault.
Well, unfortunately any way you look at it, it is your fault. You are responsible for your actions on any music download site or service. The small loop hole in file sharing software and sites is that a user can use it legally. If I create an eBook on the best music download sites for example, and as the writer and sole copyright owner, I choose to distribute it for free to anyone who wants to take a read, I can put it on file sharing software and sites. If anyone downloads it, it is legal as I am not looking for any compensation. In this case, the user of the file sharing software or site is not doing anything wrong.
If a user downloads a copyrighted file from an artist or label that is looking to being compensated and never gave permission to the source of the file to distribute it however, then the user who downloads it can get into trouble and it is completely their fault for not doing their research before downloading the music file.
How do I know if a music download site is legal or illegal?
In order for any music download site or service to distribute music files legally, they need a distribution agreement with the artists record label. To make things simple, if you are looking for music from top 40 artists, most of these acts are signed to one of the major record labels; Warner Music Group, EMI, Sony Music Entertainment, and Universal Music Group. A music download site would need a distribution agreement with these companies to legally make this music available on their site.
If a music download site went through the trouble of putting together a distribution agreement with the 4 major labels, chances are they are proud of the accomplishment and would have this written somewhere in their "FAQ" or "About Us" section of the site. If it is not written, it is up to you to contact them and make sure they have the legal right to distribute the music files you are looking for before you download anything from them.
In the end, our generation has the luxury of having many legal music download sites available to us. It is simply a question of doing a little research before hand and making sure you go with a site that suits your needs, has the music you are looking for, but more importantly, offers legal music downloads which rightfully compensate artists for their work.