Is Ripping A Crime?

Seems like a simple question that should have a simple answer. But it doesn't. Whether or not its legal to rip a copy of a CD you own depends on where you live. Spain, Sweden, Poland, Australia and New Zealand all appear to feel its OK to rip for personal use. The UK looks like it will join them per the recommendations of the Hargreaves Review a report initiated by Prime Minister David Cameron in November 2010. From a BBC article, "One of the most significant recommendations that the government plans to implement is the legalisation of 'format shifting' - where users rip content from CDs or DVDs for their own personal use."

But back in the USA, the Recording Industry Association of America's (RIAA) position is straight forward (and absurd, outdated and unenforceable)—ripping a copy of a CD you own is in fact making an unauthorized copy therefore it is illegal:

Copyright law protects the value of creative work. When you make unauthorized copies of someone’s creative work, you are taking something of value from the owner without his or her permission. Most likely, you’ve seen the FBI warning about unauthorized copying at the beginning of a movie DVD. Though you may not find these messages on all compact discs or music you’ve downloaded from the Internet, the same laws apply. Federal law provides severe civil and criminal penalties for the unauthorized reproduction, distribution, rental or digital transmission of copyrighted sound recordings. (Title 17, United States Code, Sections 501 and 506).
So when we talk about the best method for ripping a CD, are we actually promoting copyright infringement or fair use? Microsoft handles this gray area by adding this note to the bottom of their how to Rip music from a CD web page:
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of copyrighted material may be a violation of copyright law in the United States and/or other countries/regions. Copyrighted material includes, but is not limited to, software, documentation, graphics, lyrics, photographs, clipart, animations, movie and video clips, as well as sound and music (including when MP3 encoded). Violation of U.S. and international copyright laws may subject you to significant civil and/or criminal penalties.
And here's Apple's version from their "How to burn an audio CD in iTunes" web page (they do not include any legal language on their how to Import pages):
This software may be used to reproduce materials. It is licensed to you only for reproduction of non-copyrighted materials, materials in which you own the copyright, or materials you are authorized or legally permitted to reproduce. If you are uncertain about your right to copy any material, you should contact your legal advisor.

It's clearly OK to rip this in Spain.

I have the feeling most people regardless of where they live operate under the assumption that its OK to rip a copy of a CD you own for personal use. No harm no foul as long as there's no sharing (that's the real elephant in the computer audio room). The RIAA's position on ripping appears to be as long as you own the original authorized CD and the copy you make is for personal use only, they more than likely will not sue you even though you are, according to them, breaking the law.

Confusing, no? Here's an interesting article by Ryan Singe on WIRED, "RIAA Believes MP3s Are A Crime: Why This Matters — Updated. Even though its from 2008, the issues involved are no clearer today as you can see if you go to the RIAA website and read this wishy-washy language:

...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.

Won't usually raise concerns? When will they and what would constitute an unusual circumstance? Why should we have to wonder? The RIAA seems to want to leave that door open just in case they need to use it. I think it's about time, long overdue in fact, that we join Spain, Sweden, Poland, Australia, New Zealand and the UK and make this a clear cut policy, i.e. it's OK to rip CDs you own for personal use. Period.

But don't take my advice (I'm not actually offering any from a legal perspective) and proceed at your own risk when ripping in the USA. I do it, and I do it a lot. But as Pee-wee Herman said, "You don't wanna get mixed up with a guy like me. I'm a loner, Dottie. A rebel."

COMMENTS's picture

If it is a crime, then go for companies like Microsoft (that includes a ripper within their Windows Media Player) and punish them. Without the necessary software (and Hardware) it wouldn't be possible.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

...would seem to apply in theory in this case since there are uses for ripping that do not involve copyrighted material.

deckeda's picture

... to worry. Has anyone been sued yet for ripping their own copies? If there's been no prior fight, a legal change is unlikey, isn't it? [Asked another way, what has caused the other countries mentioned to change their laws?]

Regardless, I agree: Explicitly spell it out and make it legal. Force the RIAA to admit that some forms of copying can't be shown to actually be hurting them. Perhaps a tiny seed will grow.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

No one has been sued for ripping. But, and it’s a legitimate but, the RIAA has suggested that ripping creates an unauthorized copy and has used this as part of their case involving file sharing most notably in Atlantic v. Howell (see the WIRED article and this article from the EFF).

So I'm objecting to the potential threat and agree that we agree-let's get rid of the ambiguity.

Mark Fleischmann's picture

I interviewed the president of RIAA for the Home Theater site and got this response to a question about ripping:

"Let me start with a quick (perhaps) counter-intuitive observation: The record companies are the most flexible and permissive copyright industry. Think about it--can you make a copy of a videogame, DVD or any other software? No. But you can burn copies of CDs for personal use, move music from CDs to iPods, and make multiple copies of songs downloaded from iTunes. We want consumers to have an enjoyable experience with their music, and that's why we have never objected to a music buyer making copies for personal use."

My reading of the situation is that RIAA will not mount a serious legal campaign against personal-use ripping but still wants to keep its options open.

Full text here:

Michael Lavorgna's picture

It’s exactly the - keeping its options open - angle that bothers me.

Here’s a relevant quote from the Hargreaves Report;

“5.30 The Review favours a limited private copying exception which corresponds to what consumers are already doing. As rights holders are well aware of consumers’ behaviour in this respect, our view is that the benefit of being able to do this is already factored into the price that rights holders are charging. A limited private copying exception which corresponds to the expectations of buyers and sellers of copyright content, and is therefore already priced into the purchase, will by definition not entail a loss for right holders.”

(my emphasis)

SFralph's picture

Just wondering, what happens if you rip a CD to your hard drive and then sell the CD? Wonder what would the RIAA say about that.   

Michael Lavorgna's picture

My guess is they would view this as a no-no. Which raises another interesting question - What differentiates a legal download from a ripped CD in the eyes of the RIAA?

I do not know the answer. But…

In a recent (11/10/2011) demand letter the RIAA sent to ReDigi, they appear to be taking the stance that you cannot resell a digital download, which is the basis of the ReDigi service (funky concept, that). You can read more about this here.