The U.S. has laws and the laws enforce and prohibit certain activities and protect certain rights. It gets tricky, even if you are a lawyer because some instances and cases have not been settled in court or defined explicitly in an Act or law.

For instance, did you know that each recording device sold requires the company to pay a royalty fee to the Copyright Office four times a year per item? Yes. The Audio Home Recording Act mandates royalties and does “other stuff.” The issue here though is infringement, meaning you are violating copyright by copying digital audio in certain cases. XM got in trouble for “distributing” music with XM+MP3 devices. The problem was that they did not have a license to produce permanent copies of mp3s from XM songs.

Along the same lines is the VCR: Are they illegal then? No. No recording device is really illegal unless you are a company selling it without the right license. As a consumer of the product, you can’t get arrested for owning a cassette recorder. The key issue to remember is that fair use entitles you to limited rights to handle copyrighted material. You can’t do just anything even if the purpose is private and non-commercial. Depending on the nature of the item and your intentions, your mileage will vary. Fair use is not strongly defined and stretching it may get you in trouble. That’s why Creative Commons was set up to enhance rights and clearly allow specific activities.

What you can legally do is postpone your listening experience if you TiVo your primetime TV show, or record it on your VCR, or make a cassette of your favorite local radio show for later viewing. What you aren’t supposed to do is keep an archive of the material as part of a permanent library. If you intend to keep a permanent recording of it, you are technically breaking the law. Copyfutures has an excellent explanation of the legalities of copyrighted recording:

It might be OK to record the Internet broadcast of a favorite opera, so you can listen to it next week. But once the fat lady sings, you’re legally obliged to press the delete button. How can the music industry possibly enforce this law? The difference between recording Internet radio and recording and sharing MP3’s is that the former is done in the privacy of your own home, and no one needs to know what or how much music you’re recording.

If this is new to you, all the sudden ripping streaming online radio is not the legal alternative to P2P software. Easier? Yes. Safer? Probably. But it still isn’t legitimate in the eyes of the government (there is still legal haze as to how long you can legally acquire a temporary version). If you are looking to get free music without getting caught, this is your best option. If you wanting to legitimize your collection, just pick up the CDs or look for mp3s stores without DRM.