As I was perusing some music-related message boards online the other day, I came across a thread that I found troublesome. The title of the thread was something like, “Demos, B-Sides, And Out Of Print Songs.” It was about 15 pages of people posting links to downloadable files of various bands’ demo tapes, live recordings, and songs that are on albums that are no longer being produced by the record companies. It also stated that you could not post “officially released music” that was still commercially available. I think that the site administrator thought that by posting such rules, he/she would not be infringing on any copyright protection. After all, they were only demos.
Perhaps the site administrator should ask Kevin Cogill about the legal ramifications of posting demos online. Mr. Cogill is the owner of the web site that posted nine of the demos from Guns N’ Roses’ new Chinese Democracy, back in June of 2008. Mr. Cogill was arrested by five FBI agents and was charged under the federal anti-piracy law that makes it a felony to distribute a work that is subject to copyright protection on computer networks before its release.
Now, I have communicated this before, but it bears repeating. A musical creation is subject to copyright protection once that work is recorded on a tangible medium (computer file, tape, etc.). That copyright only extends to those people would have actual knowledge of the recorded music. However, once a recorded musical piece is filed with the United States Patent And Trademark Office, that is considered “notice to the world,” and the protection afforded by the copyright extends to everyone governed by U.S. law.
Even though a demo is not an official release, it is still someone’s property. Perhaps it is owned by the record company, which financed the recording of the demo, or perhaps it is the band’s first demo ever recorded, in which case it would be the property of that band. If you post that band’s demo online, then you are violating copyright law, as that demo is not your property and you are disseminating it without the consent of or compensation to the true owner of the work. By doing so, you are diluting the value of those demos, as many bands choose to sell those songs later in their careers, and the market for those songs will not be there if everyone has already downloaded free copies of the songs.
I understand “superfans” who want to track down all the rare tracks and alternative takes of songs, and the desire to share those with other superfans, and that the intention is not to harm the band. But those who post those songs online and who copy them for others are actually hurting those bands they support. Support the bands that you love by not giving their work away for free.
This article is not intended as legal advice. If you have specific legal concerns, please contact an attorney.