Personal use is copyright infringement?

Posted on December 31, 2007

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In the latest example of how the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has utterly failed to understand and adapt to the changing music landscape, RIAA has brought suit against a man for copying his legally purchased CDs to his personal computer for personal use.

In legal documents in its federal case against Jeffrey Howell, a Scottsdale, Ariz., man who kept a collection of about 2,000 music recordings on his personal computer, the industry maintains that it is illegal for someone who has legally purchased a CD to transfer that music into his computer.

The industry’s lawyer in the case, Ira Schwartz, argues in a brief filed earlier this month that the MP3 files Howell made on his computer from legally bought CDs are “unauthorized copies” of copyrighted recordings.


Apparently, if you choose to fight back against RIAA’s overreaching on copyright infringement issues (as Mr. Howell apparently did), you can be sued for having the audacity to assert fair use privileges over your own, legally purchased music.

[L]awyers for consumers point to a series of court rulings over the last few decades that found no violation of copyright law in the use of VCRs and other devices to time-shift TV programs; that is, to make personal copies for the purpose of making portable a legally obtained recording.

Given the fact that fair use for time and location-shifting was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in Sony Corp. v. Universal City Studios, Inc., 464 U.S. 417 (1984), I don’t see how RIAA has a case here. The question is whether something like the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) has something in it that changes the law regarding fair use. As far as I can tell there is nothing in the DMCA that changed the time- and location-shifting permission for free use – the DMCA makes it illegal to bypass DRM and grants immunity to ISPs who store music for their users, but nothing I’ve found on other free use issues – but I’m hardly a copyright lawyer.

UPDATE#2: The MSM seems to be a bit confused on this one, but court papers indicate that RIAA’s lawyer Ira Schwartz actually IS claiming that Mr. Howell’s ripped CDs are infringing.
UPDATE: Apparently I misunderstood the issue some – the issue here is that Mr. Howell apparently put the music into a folder that was publicly shared, enabling people to access it via an intranet (like putting your music up on a home network, perhaps?). So it’s apparently still file sharing, albeit at a much lower level than wide-scale P2P. Regardless, though, RIAAs statements from the WaPo article are more inclusive than the actual lawsuit. (Thanks to Sam for the correction)

Other commentary:
Afterdawn.com
The Register
Internet DJ

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