Free music is easy to find nowadays. Just head over to YouTube and you can find millions of tracks including many of the most recent releases.
While the music industry profits from the advertisements on many of these videos, it doesn’t like the fact that some people use external tools to download music tracks.
Various record labels are countering this threat with DMCA notices, lawsuits, and website blocking requests. YouTube itself is chiming in as well and actively blocks stream-rippers, which is an ongoing battle.
Legal or Not?
Copyright holders are convinced that stream-ripping sites break the law but, in most countries, legal uncertainties remain. In the US, for example, popular stream-ripper Yout.com has sued the RIAA in an effort to have its site declared legal. This case, which remains ongoing, could set an important precedent.
In France, the Ministry of Culture was recently questioned on the stream-ripping issue. Philippe Latombe, a member of the MoDem party, asked the Government whether copies downloaded through these services are considered illegal.
The question was part of a broader inquiry into the private copying rules and regulations. These allow people to copy music and movies in exchange for a tax that’s paid on storage media and devices including blank CDs, hard disks, and smartphones.
Stream-Ripping is Legal If…
Responding to the question, the Ministry of Culture confirmed that, under the right conditions, it’s perfectly legal to use stream-ripping services to download music and other media.
“[Stream-ripping] is legal and the resulting copy falls under the exception for private copying as provided by law, if several conditions are met: it must be made from a lawful source at the request of the user, without being stored by the converter, and no circumvention of technical protection measures must be carried out.”
If these three boxes are ticked, stream-ripping is in the same league as ripping or copying an old-fashioned CD or DVD.
The big question, however, is in what situation all these conditions would apply? With regard to YouTube ripping, the “source” could be considered legal, as artists and labels often upload the videos themselves.
The second box is also ticked by many stream-rippers as they don’t permanently store music. The operator of the stream-rippers FLVto and 2Conv recently said that his site doesn’t even store basic logs as that would involve significant costs.
This brings us to the third and final condition; whether the stream-ripper circumvents technical protection measures. This is a crucial question and the answer largely depends on who you ask.
The major music labels, represented by the RIAA, argue that these download tools circumvent YouTube’s ‘rolling cipher’ technology. This was backed up in at least one lawsuit in Germany. But not everyone agrees.
Backed by the German court ruling, the RIAA asked GitHub to remove the stream-ripping tool youtube-mp3. This request was initially granted but was later reversed, with GitHub stating that the project isn’t circumventing technical protection measures.
The circumvention ‘question’ is also at the heart of the legal battle between Yout.com and the RIAA in US federal court. This is a high-profile case and the outcome is expected to have broad consequences for other stream-ripping tools.
For now, this means that the French Ministry of Culture’s clarification is not very helpful. Most people simply don’t know whether a stream-ripper stores content. And they can’t possibly decide whether any technical protection measures are circumvented if that’s still an open question for legal experts.