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How Music Piracy Laws Have Changed Over Time

Music piracy is an interesting thing. People want music – but they haven’t always had access to it. Some people would seek out expensive and rare recordings to get access to what they needed. Others would find ways to get it for free. What’s been interesting, though, is how the law has kept up with this phenomenon.

The Grey Days

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where music piracy began, but laws in the United States began to address illegal copying as early as 1790. Early statutes outlined who had control of written music, limiting the power of composers and placing more power in the hands of rights holders. As music piracy, as it’s known today, was virtually non-existent, no real changes came into being until 1972. In that year, the Sound Recording Amendment of 1971 was added to a 1909 copyright statute, which added audio recordings to US copyright protection. Still, the laws on the books were rarely enforced in any meaningful way as the threat of piracy was minimal.

1992: Constructive Acceptance

Between the 1970s and the 1990s, music piracy largely consisted of bootleg concert tapes and songs recorded off the radio. There was a minimal amount of threat to the music industry from these practices – few people had the requisite equipment for piracy to be a real issue, so pirated music was rare. Home casettte recorders did make piracy easier, so something of a middle ground was struck in 1992 – manufacturers of sound recording equipment would have to pay a small royalty to music rights holders when they made new equipment.

1998: The DMCA

The late 1990s saw a boom in music piracy thanks to peer-to-peer sharing networks like Napster. Music piracy went from a niche group of hobbyists to a widespread phenomenon. In response, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) was passed. This law gave rights holders the right to seek damages against people who uploaded and shared their music, and is the governing document when it comes to music piracy in the US today. The DMCA has been challenged and some provisions weakened, but it is still very much in place today.

Music piracy laws change almost as often as music recording technology. There will likely be new laws in the future to protect the rights of music companies, and there will soon thereafter be new ways for people to pirate music. You might consider pursuing a course in law at a paralegal college like ASA College if you wish to learn more. While piracy has declined, one thing is for certain—people want access to music, even if they aren’t willing to pay for it.

This article was written by Dixie Somers, a freelance writer who loves to write for business, finance, and family issues. She lives in Arizona with her husband and three beautiful daughters. You can find Dixie on Facebook.


Bob Kraft

I am a Dallas, Texas lawyer who has had the privilege of helping thousands of clients since 1971 in the areas of Personal Injury law and Social Security Disability.

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