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Recording Industry Tells Court (Again) That MP3s Are a Crime

Does the Recording Industry Association of America think that you have the legal right to rip MP3s off CDs that you own? The evidence says the RIAA thinks you are a criminal if you make MP3s out of your late 80’s hair metal CD collection, but probably won’t sue you unless you send that MP3 to a friend or share it on the internet.

In a court filing (.pdf) that’s being much discussed on the internet today, the RIAA appears to say no when asked that question by a judge in an Arizona suit against Jeffrey Howell for sharing songs on the Kazaa file sharing network.

The RIAA doesn’t quite say MP3s ripped from one’s own music collection are illegal, but instead refers to them as “unauthorized copies.”

But the judge’s question was plain:

Does the record in this case show that Defendant Howell possessed an “unlawful copy” of the Plaintiff’s copyrighted material, and that he actually disseminated that copy to the public?

The answer was convoluted. The RIAA said the copies were unauthorized and that by putting the unauthorized copies in the Kazaa share folder, Howell was guilty of distributing copyrighted works.

The RIAA’s website clarifies what it means when it says unauthorized copies.

If you make unauthorized copies of copyrighted music recordings, you’re stealing. You’re breaking the law, and you could be held legally liable for thousands of dollars in damages.

What does the site say specifically about ripping your CD or making a backup copy?

There’s no legal “right” to copy the copyrighted music on a CD onto a CD-R. However, burning a copy of CD onto a CD-R, or transferring a copy onto your computer hard drive or your portable music player, won’t usually raise concerns so long as:

  • The copy is made from an authorized original CD that you legitimately own
  • The copy is just for your personal use. It’s not a personal use — in fact, it’s illegal — to give away the copy or lend it to others for copying.

That’s reassuring. The millions of Americans who ripped their music collections to listen to on their home media centers and portable digital audio players are considered thieves by the Record Industry, but you can rely on the goodness of their hearts not to sue you.

Also remember that in the case against Jammie Thomas, the record industry was much clearer on how much they hate their customers.

Sony’s BMG’s anti-piracy officer Jennifer Pariser was asked by record industry attorney Richard Gabriel if ripping songs from a CD was legal.   She said no — that’s “a nice way of saying, ‘steals just one copy.'”

I originally thought after reading the filing, that Ray Beckerman at Recording Industry vs The People and Boing Boing were overplaying this (as Mike Masnick at TechDirt thinks), but on a closer read, Beckerman was absolutely right when he broke this story.

I tried to call the RIAA for clarification, but their phone system, like the record label’s business model, is stuck in the early 80s. There’s no voicemail — not even an answering machine — for their press contacts. The phone just rings out.

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