Burning CDs and Copyright Law

CD Reflections by spcbrass from Flicker (Creative Commons License)

CD Reflections by spcbrass from Flicker (Creative Commons License)

One of my favorite minimalists shared a post by Lindsay Schauer about the eight things you can live without on Twitter last week, and it kicked off a legal discussion and he asked me to comment. One of the things Lindsay said to get rid of is your CD collection – burn them to your hard drive and get rid of the physical CDs themselves. That makes a lot of sense. A single CD doesn’t take up much space but a collection of jewel cases does.

I put my CDs in a CD binder and chucked the cases years ago, but can you legally copy a CD you own and keep that instead of the disk?  Probably.

The copyright holder (likely the record label or the artist) controls when/where/how their work is copied, distributed, and performed. When you buy a CD, you only purchase the tangible object – not the intellectual property rights. Just like when you want to get rid of an old book you can give it away, throw it away, or sell it to a second hand store, the same is true for CDs. However, you can’t make a photocopy of the book so you can keep the original for yourself and give a copy to a friend. The same is true for CDs. (Yes, all those copies of CDs you burned from or for your friends are probably illegal.)

CDs by borkur.net from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

CDs by borkur.net from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

If you legally purchased a CD, you can make a copy of it for “archival” purposes. This prevents you from having to buy a new one in the event the CD gets lost, damaged, broken, or used as a Frisbee, coaster, or for an art project. The same rule applies for making a copy of computer software that you’ve legally purchased.

So can you take Lindsay’s advice and copy all your CDs to your hard drive and chuck the originals? Yes, if you legally purchased the albums. You can only make one copy for yourself. You can’t make copies for your friends.

The purpose of the copyright law is to give artists rights in their work and allow them to profit from selling it. An archival copy is supposed to be a backup for the original, so some copyright holders may frown on people who make an archival copy of a CD and sell the original. (You’re starting to look like the guy who sells a book to a friend but keeps a photocopy of it for himself.) There’s an argument that you’re committing copyright infringement; however, the amount you’re making isn’t really cutting into their profits, and the artist might be happy that more people are being exposed to their music. If someone is concerned about their rights and maximizing profits, they might be less upset if you throw the CD away or repurpose it into a coaster so anyone else who wants the album has to buy it.

The good news in copyright infringement cases is the only person who can come after you for copyright infringement is the copyright holder. If they don’t know what you’re doing or don’t care, they will never come after you.

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  • Robert Wall

    So let me pose two questions.

    Joe purchases an album on CD, brand new, from WalMart. Joe takes that CD, puts it into his computer, rips it into iTunes, and puts the CD in the “donate” bin.

    Joe has purchased a license for the music (by buying the CD), and has exercised his rights to make an archival copy (by ripping it into iTunes).

    If Joe’s friend sees that CD in the donation bin and Joe gives it to him instead, now the friend has the CD.

    Is the friend allowed to put that CD into his computer, rip it into iTunes, and toss it into his own donation bin? Or does that right stop with the original purchaser?

    If this is legal, it would seem that this is a way to basically manufacture licenses for music.

    And one more question. Let’s say somebody *does* get cranky with you about your ripped music collection. Producing a stack of original CDs (even if they’re all beat up) is likely an affirmative defense to copyright infringement.

    What do you do if you’ve disposed of all the originals?

    • http://www.CarterLawAz.com/ Ruth Carter

      That’s a great question and one a fellow legal eagle raised too. If you don’t have the original CD anymore, how are you going to prove that you legally bought it before you ripped the album? It could be hard to prove unless you have photos of your CD collection from when you still had it. Thankfully most artists and record labels aren’t going to go after you for this…at least they haven’t so far.

      In copyright, the artist has control over the first sale but they can’t tell you what to do with their CD, book, painting, whatever once you’ve bought it. You can throw it way, give it away, paint it purple, destroy it, etc. This issues gets unclear because we have consumers making copies without destroying or keeping the original which opens the door for a copyright infringement claim.