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Legally downloading music files gets surprisingly complex. There are many sources, both legal and not, and they're difficult to distinguish.

This is a question that has been bugging me for a long time: do you know a decent site from where I can download legal MP3 files? I ask this for a relative, because I myself am old-fashioned: I either buy the CD or get the CD from a national library here in the Netherlands with 300,000 titles. I then rip the CD to Ogg Vorbis format and listen to it on my computer (Ubuntu Linux with Banshee music player) or on my BlackBerry (which, surprisingly, plays Ogg Vorbis). But this relative of mine asked me how he could download music to create and burn his own CDs. If someone wants to download music legally, I would suggest they look at iTunes, but with DRM and all that, I don't know if you can burn CDs from that.

My experience is that iTunes will let you burn some songs to CD, but not others. As I understand it, it's up to the music publisher of each song as to whether that's allowed. (And yes, it's frustrating when it's not.)

Unfortunately, I don't have a specific recommendation for you in the Netherlands. I'll touch on a few possibilities for getting music legally, but it's a surprisingly difficult question to answer in a useful way that makes it clear what is and is not legal.

I also want to address something in your question that has me a little concerned:

You might already be violating copyright law.

Legal Sources for Music

A great rule of thumb is that if you have to purchase it and you're purchasing it from a legitimate vendor, then it's almost certainly legal.

"The net result is that it's often very difficult to understand what is and what is not a legal source for music."

So vendors like iTunes and Amazon.com are great sources for legally available music. In fact, Amazon makes digital music available in MP3 format and because it doesn't require iTunes or any other application, it's my favorite source of music.

I honestly don't know whether Amazon sells to the Netherlands (amazon.nl redirects to amazon.co.uk, so I'm not sure of the relationship there). But I would look to major retailers and music stores for equivalents there.

Illegal Sources for Music

A great rule of thumb is that if you can get it for free and it's from a popular musician on a major record label, then it's probably illegal and in violation of copyright.

Popular music available using bittorrent, for example, is almost certainly being downloaded illegally and we've even heard of record companies suing those who do so.

There are probably many download sites where you can download music as well, and the same rule of thumb probably applies.

But it's never that simple...

Unfortunately, those are the only rules of thumb and can't be applied broadly. For example:

  • There are subscription sites where you pay to "join" to gain access to downloadable music. Some of these sites are not legitimate and you're left downloading illegally pirated music, even though you "paid".

  • There are subscription sites where you pay to gain access to downloadable music which are legitimate.

  • Some musicians make their music available for free by choice; either it's a limited-time incentive or an introduction. The best source for this is probably the musician's own site.

  • Some musicians make some of their music available for free. Again, the best source for this is likely the musician's own site.

The net result is that it's often very difficult to understand what is and what is not a legal source for music.

About that library...

You indicated that you borrowed CDs from the library and ripped them to music files on your PC.

If you then kept those files when you returned the CD, that is very likely a violation of copyright law.

The CD available at a library is meant to be borrowed and returned. When you return it, you don't have it any more. What you've done is you've made a copy of the CD which you then kept.

Unless the artist has explicitly allowed it (which is unlikely in most cases), that's almost the very definition of a copyright violation.

It's possible (and this gets into picky details) that the mere act of ripping the CD might be illegal, but I suspect ripping, listening to, and then deleting the files when you return the CD to the library would at least meet the intent, if not the letter, of copyright law.

Bottom Line

I stick to a known retail vendor, Amazon.com in my case, from which I can purchase my music and then check out individual artist sites for things that the retailer either doesn't carry or that the artists might offer. That keeps me safe and legal.

Unfortunately, I don't have a specific retail vendor to point you to in The Netherlands, perhaps readers there will chime in with legal suggestions.

Article C4910 - August 24, 2011 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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17 Comments
Ken B
August 24, 2011 4:14 PM

Since the OP mentioned libraries, I'd like to point out the fact that our local library (in the U.S.) has free access for its members to "Freegal Music" -- https://www.freegalmusic.com -- which has a large selection of no-cost DRM-free MP3 songs. Perhaps your library offers the same service? You are limited to how many songs you can download per week, and they don't have every artist, but "the price is right", and it's all legal.

Mark J
August 25, 2011 8:24 AM

I've found some artists make a a few of their mp3s available on their MySpace pages.

Greg Bulmash
August 25, 2011 10:11 AM

If you're not looking for specific musicians, try ccMixter.org. You can find lots of great music licensed under the Creative Commons. Also search for Sampler on Amazon. There are a LOT of free sampler albums so you can try out the artists from a lot of smaller labels.

Emiel
August 26, 2011 9:05 AM

Hi Leo,

Thanks for answering my question. I tried to do some searching in the meantime, and I believe that for legal Mp3, DRM-free downloads, 7digital would be the way to go (I tried to buy something through the Ubuntu One music shop, and they led me to 7digital). I bought 3 albums and they seem to have a fairly good collection of music.

I will still borrow music from the library, one of the reasons being that they have some really hard-to-find stuff, including records. I sent them an email and their reply was that I could legally use the music for personal use. There was an article on a Dutch website for parents, to inform them about what would be legal for their kids to download (http://www.ouders.nl/mred2003-kopieren.htm - Google translate gives a fairly good translation). There is says that the law here in Holland is that it is not illegal to *download* Mp3s (or get it from a Cd from a library), but it is illegal to *offer* it, however. The article also mentioned that, strictly speaking, libraries were indeed wrong in offering the music, but that nothing was being done about it at the moment. It continued to say that it is all a bit strange. Indeed it is.
I do know that for books borrowed from libraries, a small amount of money goes to the author, like royalties. I wonder if the same is true for Cd's. Also, a portion of the money of empty CD's and DVD's goes to paying royalties to composers, etc.

For some really good music that is under a Creative Commons license, you might want to check out Magnatune. They're really good. Also, once Amazon is available in Holland, I'll go check them out.

Thanks again,
Emiel

Bill F
August 30, 2011 11:07 AM

I am thinking that the author of the Dutch article is very confused. Especially since they refer to US laws and lawsuits.

The actual copyright infringment starts with copying of an item that does NOT fall under the "Fair Use" provisions of the law. There is no reference in the copyright laws to offering the materials but offering illegal copies (whether or not payment is required) to others is primary evidence that the person is not within the Fair Use of the material.

Under the author's theory, all libraries would be illegal since they provide copyrighted materials.
They would only be in violation of the law if they suggested that their customers copied the items in violation of the law. Most library materials are impractical to copy. I am used to seeing signs on their copy machines about it being forbidden to copy materials in violation of the copyright laws.

The RIAA has primarily sued people who copy the music AND let people know that they are putting it up to be copied. That is because the case is easy to win when you have evidence in the persons own words and actions that they were promoting the theft.
They have filed suit against some sharing sites and one (who's name evades me at the moment) changed to sell legal copies. Others have defended themselves with the fiction that their sites or software are ONLY intended for legitimate file sharing and they in no way encourage anyone to violate any laws.

Copying copyrighted items from the library to keep after the items are returned is a clear violation of the law. I haven't seen a clarification of the idea of copying items from a library to make them more convenient to use and and deleting them when done.
Copying copyrighted items to give to a friend is a clear violation of the law.
Recording music off the air for your own use has been considered part of the Fair Use allowance.

You will not be sued for copying the library copies or for swapping ripped CDs with a friend. Even though it is clearly illegal, there is almost no way for the RIAA or other groups to know that it is happening, unless you are going big time and advertising it to the public. It is also not worth their lawyer fees to go after someone with a dozen or two violations.
Even when the violations are eggerious the RIAA has generally offered the violators to pay for the violating items and removal of the public offers.

Henk
August 30, 2011 11:46 AM

Hi Leo,
Dutch law allows us to make a home-copy of quite a lot of things. You are not allowed to make a copy of a home designed by an architect, but if you want to make a copy of a movie--go ahead, even if you suspect the source to be illegal. So, if you borrow a music CD from a library and make a copy for yourself on a CD you are not going outside the law, even if you keep and use the copy after you bring back the borrowed CD. If you want to download a movie from internet to burn a copy on a DVD and watch it at home: very well, but do not give your copy to your neighbor because only personal use is allowed. One should not use some bittorrent client for downloading because the uploading that goes along with it is forbidden. So people use Usenet--if the person placing a movie there did not have the right to do that, well, that is legally no problem for you. The downloading of games and other computer programs is forbidden by law.

Dave Markley
August 30, 2011 12:27 PM

I've found that many artists have free stuff on their websites, or as someone already suggested, their MySpace pages are another source. Another alternative, while maybe or maybe not legit depending on the particular song, would be to use a 'Youtube downloader' and then convert the video to an mp3. In this case, is it really unethical to copy a version of a song which is not available to buy (if the video was a legitimate one but never released for sale)? I guess you need to decide that for yourself.

I find it amusing, though, that the author of the question won't download music, but will copy a CD into their computer? I'm not familiar with Netherland's copyright laws, but in the U.S. this constitutes the same copyright violation as downloading them.

Ripping the music from a downloaded YouTube video is, as I understand it also an illegal violation of copyright law.
Leo
30-Aug-2011

sgetter
August 30, 2011 1:36 PM

Leo, What you said about iTunes is outdated. iTunes music is now available in 256kHz AAC format and is DRM free, meaning one can play it on ANY music player that accommodates the AAC format. It can be burned into a CD and played in a car or home stereo for example. Yes, one could also "give" that file to another person and they could also play it on their computer or device, too. Of course, that would be in violation of US copyright laws. iTunes still has DRM content, but that is mostly limited to movie, TV and some other video content, like music videos. Most, if not all, audio or video podcasts are not DRM files and can be played with any program (other than iTunes) that can accommodate the file type. The AAC format is of higher quality than the much, much older MP3 format, and for a given bit rate, it also produces a smaller file size. That's why Apple went to that format and dropped MP3. Apple was instrumental in getting the major music labels to drop DRM requirements. As a compromise, at the music labels request, Apple now charges a little more for it's music (the most popular) and in some cases, less than the original 99 cents (1.29 and 99 & 69 cents now). So, consumers now have higher quality encoded music that is DRM free that can be played or copied anywhere. Copyright laws still apply, so this means "for personal use only"! One can't legally give or sell that music to anyone for any reason. Of course, many people still give copies of their music to friends, but putting them available on a P2P sharing site is absolutely wrong and should never be done or encouraged.

To summarize, iTunes music is now DRM free, & is of a higher quality than Amazon's MP3 formatted music due to the more advanced encoding format (AAC). It is illegal to share music of ANY kind (unless that music is in the public domain) with anyone (again, "for personal use only"). Many, if not most, legal subscription music services allow one to download unlimited music files to their computers (with programs other than iTunes), but those files are DRM protected and become unplayable if you cancel your subscription. I also doubt if one is able to burn those files to an audio CD either. Those subscription music files also can not be played on an iPod (iPhone, or iPad) either, but can be played on other portable MP3 players that accommodates the subscription model's DRM. I hope this clears up some misconceptions about iTunes music.

My experience was within the last few weeks. Not all iTunes music can be burned to CD. There is definitely a setting for each song that the music publisher controls that determines whether or not it's possible. Unfortunately AAC format is not as widely supported as MP3 and many devices, even current devices, cannot play music that is purchased through iTunes.
Leo
30-Aug-2011

Bernard Winchester
August 30, 2011 2:08 PM

It may be worth mentioning that not all music is copyright, particularly as after a period of time which varies from one country to another copyright lapses. Free MP3 downloads may be found through specialised search engines such as http://beemp3.com.

kevin
August 30, 2011 8:54 PM

Amazon would be great if one could download the mp3s in my country -- Ireland!!! And they have such good value too, what a pity. Cant understand how we are all in the EU and the legalities of this cant be simplified.

Have to say there are superb actual CD bargains on Amazon, I recently "wish-listed" Paul Simon, Eddie Reader, Cat Stevens, Don MCLean, The Seekers, The Kinks etc etc none over £5, and some as low as £2--2.50, with free delivery! Where would you get it!!

kc

Richard Hawkins
August 30, 2011 9:48 PM

Leo I use a program called Audials it records and tags Internet Radio that is in mp3 format and since it is radio you can legally record it. I have obtained over 30 thousand mp3´s in this manner.

Again, I'm not a lawyer, but my understanding is that recording streaming audio to make mp3's of music you would otherwise need to purchase is illegal in most places.
Leo
31-Aug-2011

Walter Willaert
August 30, 2011 11:55 PM

Hi Leo, I read the article about illegal downloading/purchasing and I’d like to respond on it. In my case it’s not I but the vendor who sold me illegal stuff. I ordered at TwistedAnger.com a vintage 3D movie (It came from outer space) which I could not find on Amazon, and paid good money from it. What I got was an R/W DVD disc with a bad copy and not at all the 3D version. I tried to make a complaint but my e-mails bounced. I made a formal complaint to the MPAA but did not get an answer since – it’s been a month ago. I only have their dispatch address, which is in Florida and after some inquiry I found out the company has the same address as a local record shop, so I assume they’re both the same. I can’t start a juridical action because I’m from Belgium. Now, to keep it short: are their other steps to take in order to get my money back or is this a lost case?
Thank you for a useful hint.

Joe
August 31, 2011 6:38 AM

I have not seen Rhapsody mentioned as an MP3 source. Any reason that you know of, Joe

Sue
September 1, 2011 12:57 PM

Hi Leo, I legally download from my public library. It mentioned on my public library site that they assume you are going to rip off the CD, so now there is a link called "freegal" that I click into from my library card. I am allowed 3 free downloads a week and it puts the music right into my Itunes account. Granted, not all the popular music is in there, but there is plenty for me to chose. I doubt my library would allow something illegal.

Glenn P.
September 5, 2011 5:49 PM

For Walter Willaert:

Contact your credit card company nd dispute the charge on the ground of an unsatisfactory/defective product -- the law gives you that right. They should "chargeback" the purchase price and refund your money.

Of course, if you used a debit card, or your bank account, for the purchase, you're outta luck -- because the above rules simply don't apply.

Oh, and by the way, if you learn absolutely nothing else from this experience, learn the following phrase, and learn it well: "Caveat Emptor"  -- "Let the Buyer beware."

Good luck!

Margaret Louk
September 6, 2011 8:39 AM

internetarchives.org has a lot of music that the copywrites have expired. Some of it is very old, from wax recordings. it can be a lot of fun going through the stuff there. They also have old time radio shows, and live concerts. I have downloaded public radio shows too. But you really have to look around. The have some interesting video, I watched some of the old films on hygiene and dating they used to show in schools.

Nob
September 8, 2011 2:42 PM

RadioSure or Screamer radio will give peace of mind.

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