Illegal Downloading of Music

Since the onset of the internet, practices such as illegal downloading and file sharing has significantly reduced the revenue made when music artists release new singles or albums.
In the UK, music is protected by the law of copyright under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1998. Copyright protects both the original musical score and the recording.

When dealing with illegal downloads, it is the protection of the recording of the music which is the main focus. The protection in the musical score is designed to stop other artists using significant parts of the copyrighted work.

Who owns the copyright in a musical recording?

The copyright owner is the person who has created the work – this right arises automatically once the work has been created. When a music artist signs to a record company, however, they usually assign the copyright of their recordings to the label, meaning they no longer own them and only have a right to royalties.

What protection is given to a musical recording?

Copyright in music enables the person who created the product to get credit and financial benefit from it, as well as control where it is distributed. If you download music for free from a site which is not authorised by the owner of the work to provide downloads, you will have infringed the copyright in the work.

How do record companies seek to protect the copyright in musical works?

Digital rights management

Digital rights management (DRM) gives the owner of the copyright control over the number of viewings, plays and copies and even the devices which the content can be played or viewed on. Some CDs, for example, are installed with DRM protection meaning they cannot be ripped and then shared with others.

Internet processes for obtaining music

Music can be obtained via the internet through:

  • peer to peer or file sharing;
  • downloading.

Peer to peer

Peer to peer sharing is a process which enables you to download sound files from other online users. The person with whom you share the files does not have to be on the same network as you – they can be anywhere in the world. Consequently, this is a process which has proved very adept at enabling internet users to obtain a high volume of music files but is one which has not gone unnoticed the music industry. Peer to peer file sharing sites are illegal.

Napster was the first real popular peer to peer file sharing website and became very prominent during the 1990s. Napster was held to be breaking copyright laws as it provided music which has the subject of copyright for free. Napster had no legal rights to the files and so consequently wasn’t paying anything to the record companies for the right to use the music recordings.


Downloading is a process whereby you access a specific site which contains the various files for music which you download. These will then be stored on the hard drive of your computer.
Not all downloading is illegal, but if you download for free it is illegal and you will be infringing copyright. There are various websites such as iTunes run by Apple and Spotify whereby you can pay for legal downloads. These legal are expressly authorised by the music industry to provide legal downloads and so there will be no infringement of copyright.

How do legal downloading websites protect the copyrighted work?

Music obtained through a legal download will also be subject to DRM technology much in the same way as CDs. For example, Apple has its own DRM which means that files downloaded from sites such as iTunes can only be played on Apple products.

If I download music illegally will I be prosecuted?

If you download music illegally you will be breaching the copyright in the work. However, although you will be sent warning letters and could be pursued for damages and an injunction for copyright infringement, the copyright holder usually sues the site which provides the illegal downloads for a remedy as they will be the one to have made money out of it. Those who run such sites are also guilty of a criminal offence under the Copyright, Designs and Patent Act 1988 and can face up to 10 years in jail and/ or a fine.