Keep it Legal When Downloading Music


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Young people are passionate about music and parents are, understandably, worried about what's appropriate for young ears. Today, however, parents need to look beyond lyrics to think about how kids get their music. Downloaded music is so readily available that teens can easily slip into behavior that is both unethical and illegal.

The issue of music piracy is serious enough to have inspired the Stop Online Piracy Act, a law that was supposed to update rules about copyright and fair use. Congress failed to pass the bill, so parents must keep kids on the right side of laws that were designed for simpler times.

The basic premise is that artists are entitled to compensation for what they do. This is confusing territory because some musicians — especially those who don't have lucrative record contracts — are perfectly willing to give their music away. And many websites lure kids in with claims that the music they provide is free and legal. Unfortunately, most of these websites are actually peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing sites. Downloading the software on these sites allows your child to rifle through what's on others' computers — and vice versa. Some of what people share through these sites is in the public domain. Much of the material, however, is copyrighted, so it's being distributed without authorization from the people who own it. And P2P sites are notorious for transmitting viruses and other malware.

Downloading music without permission from the artist is a form of theft, pure and simple. Point out to your kids that they show respect for the artists who create the music they love by downloading files in a way that works for those artists. With that in mind, parents can guide kids to legitimate sources for their favorite tunes. Here's a list of alternatives from least to most expensive:

¯ Public library – Some libraries subscribe to Freegal, which allows patrons to download music legally. If your local library offers the service, get your kid a card.

¯ Direct from artists – Many musicians are perfectly willing to distribute music for free because they figure if they can build a fan base, they will earn money from sales of tickets and merchandise. This is especially true for independent artists. The best way to be sure the artist has authorized distribution of the music is to go directly to his or her website or blog.

¯ Streaming – Some websites function like radio stations by streaming music from their files to your speakers. Lastfm.com, Pandora.com and Spotify.com make it possible to legally listen to thousands of songs without actually downloading them. Like radio stations, the free versions of these websites play commercials. For a few dollars a month, you can give your child access to nothing but music.

¯ Subscription – At subscription sites, a monthly fee allows your child to listen to anything on the website. The music can't be burned to a CD but it can be downloaded to an MP3 player. Once a month, the player must be synched to the website and, if you end your subscription, the music goes away. Some subscription services, like Napster, also offer a fixed number of downloads per month. This can be an ideal solution for teens because they can listen to as many songs as they like but have to be choosy about what they actually download.

¯ Pay per song – Sites like iTunes or Amazon sell licenses for music that becomes a permanent part of your child's personal collection. The price per song varies depending upon quality — you'll pay more as the number of kbps increases — and the digital rights you purchase. You pay more to be able to copy a song an unlimited number of times.

¯ Peer to peer – Most adolescents aren't savvy — or patient — enough to figure out how to use P2P sites legally and safely. These sites evade the law by claiming that they don't distribute anything. They do, however, make it possible for people to share unlimited copies of files that don't belong to them so they put those who use them in legal jeopardy. P2P sites are also notorious for passing on viruses and other malware. By some estimates, more than 20 percent of downloaded files include nasty codes that will at the very least mess up your system and may give others access to information that shouldn't be shared. For these reasons, P2P sites are much more expensive than they seem and should be off limits for teens.

Getting music legally online is much easier than it used to be. As Music United points out, there are now 400 legal music sites compared to 50 in 2003. (Find that list at  www.musicunited.org/6_legalsites.aspx.) Talk about which online format best matches your child's tastes and budget. Teaching your child to do the right thing will take more effort and money, but it's every bit as important as keeping track of which songs include X-rated lyrics.  n

Carolyn Jabs is the mother of three computer-savvy kids. She has been writing about families, technology and ethics for more than 20 years.

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