Rip. Mix. Burn. Steal?

When Apple added built-in CD-RW drives to its desktop line in early 2001, Mac users joined the digital-audio revolution en masse. But just as they were beginning to burn their favorite tracks onto CD, the revolution's rules began to change.

You've no doubt heard of the online music-swapping service Napster and its legal troubles. Facing a court order, Napster has filtered out many copyrighted songs from its servers, and pretty much anything you'd want to listen to can't be downloaded anymore--unless you're a huge fan of rocking versions of public-domain songs (such as "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star").

As record companies clamped down on online music swapping, Roxio (866/280-7694, www.roxio.com )--which, along with Apple (800/692-7753, www.apple.com ), makes the CD-burning software used by Macs--struck a deal with EMI Group. The makers of Toast will team up with the record label to develop a secure CD-recording platform. This news has some users worried that Roxio plans on restricting the ability to burn CDs from MP3 files.

Is your ability to create your own CDs going the way of file swapping on Napster? And more important, if you're already making your own CDs, are you doing anything wrong?

Rip Now, Pay Later?

The answer to the first question, at least, is an unequivocal no. Although Apple has declined to comment on the future direction of any of its products, including iTunes, Roxio says that it's not about to take away a user's ability to burn audio CDs from MP3 files.

"Nothing will be disabled in what Toast will do," Roxio spokeswoman Kathryn Kelly says. "We will just enable people to burn author-ized content from EMI." The change will allow users to unlock encrypted music files in a subscription-based service and download music directly from EMI. Roxio is working with other major record labels on setting up similar services that will allow consumers to download and burn their music, Kelly adds.

"The record companies are concerned about everything," she says. "What we're trying to do is talk to them. They have to include CD burning [in future digital-music plans] because without it they will fail."

But Is It Legal?

As for whether or not it's against the law to make CD copies of music, things get a little fuzzy. Everyone--from the Recording Industry Asso-ciation of America (RIAA) to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a civil-liberties advocacy group--seems to agree on one point:

"It's perfectly legal for you to make copies of your own music for your own personal use," says Robin Gross, EFF's staff intellectual-property attorney. "It's called 'fair use.' It's your legal right to do so, even if the copyright holder doesn't want you to."

So if you want to take all your Radiohead albums, rip selected tracks from each of them, and burn a mix CD for your own use, there's nothing wrong with doing so.

But when you make a mix CD for someone else, or create a CD from music downloaded from a source such as Napster, things get tricky.

If you were to pass your Radiohead mix CD along to a friend, fair use becomes debatable. If listening to a track on that mix CD inspires the friend to run right out and buy a copy of Amnesiac , then you might have a case for it being a fair use of the material, according to the EFF. Not so fast, the RIAA counters; that Radiohead CD is legal only if you also hand over to your friend all the legally purchased Radiohead CDs you used to burn it.

The RIAA's position is unambiguous: making a mixed CD of music you own and then giving that CD to someone who does not own that music violates copyright law.

So who's right?

"There is no bright line," Gross says. "We've never had to draw the [copyright law] legality down to that level of distinction before. That's really one of the problems right now. There isn't a clear guideline as to how we're supposed to analyze. That's why it's important to pay attention to what people think. One important thing to consider is that the law should spring from society, rather than be imposed from above."

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