How the RIAA Works

By: John Kelly

The RIAA and Music Piracy

Burning a CD from your computer is ridiculously easy. It also could be illegal. Digital recording has made counterfeiting and sharing technically simple, but only the owner of the copyright can legally make a copy. Any other copying falls into the sometimes murky territory of music piracy.

As the RIAA readily points out, the penalties for stealing copyrighted material are no joke. Even if you don't pirate copies for commercial purposes, making an unauthorized copy means you could spend five years in the slammer and pay a $250,000 fine. You could also be the target of a civil suit, with penalties starting at $750 per song [source: RIAA].


If that sounds serious, it's because piracy is a life-or-death issue for the record industry. Today, only 37 percent of all music is obtained legally; the rest is stolen. Record companies and artists lose an estimated $12.5 billion a year to copyright theft. Since 1999, music sales have plummeted 53 percent, diving from $14.6 billion in 1999 to $7.0 billion in 2011. From 2004 to 2009, music pirates downloaded something like 30 billion songs illegally, a blow to the industry that has cost 70,000 Americans their jobs. The RIAA compiles statistics like these to emphasize the gravity of the situation [source: RIAA].

And these financial losses hurt more than just the corporations. Musicians, the very folks that fans idolize, lose the income to which their talent entitles them. When record companies are deprived of revenues, they don't have the money to invest in new talent. Performers who might have made it big never get the chance.

Who are the culprits in music piracy? Here are a few of the actions that constitute theft:

  • Burning a CD copy of an album or making a compilation of songs
  • Transferring a friend's CD or playlist onto your MP3 player
  • Sharing songs over peer-to-peer (P2P) networks on the Internet
  • Passing on tunes through instant messaging
  • Downloading copyrighted music via digital storage lockers

Enough people have broken the rules that the RIAA has taken action to protect the industry.