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Beware of Free (Including RIAA Legal Advice?)

"When someone offers you something for free, be suspicious," states a new video on copyright law by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).

According to several trade groups and public interest organizations, that might also include the RIAA's legal views on copying music.

As part of a college campus anti-piracy back-to-school campaign, the RIAA is promoting a free DVD (also available online at campusdownloading.com) warning students of the legal perils of downloading free music.

"Sharing copyrighted music files is no different than shoplifting a CD from a store," the video states.

In a FAQ on the site, a question about the fair use doctrine giving a person the right to download and upload copies of purchased music is simply answered, "No, it doesn't."

The FAQ qualifies fair use as only applying in certain circumstances for purposes of criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship or research.

"However, courts have rejected the notion that uploading and downloading copyrighted sound recordings without permission constitutes 'fair use,'" the FAQ states.

The RIAA does say it is legal to make a copy of legally purchased music but warns it is illegal to make a copy for a friend or to e-mail a copy to anyone.

Begging to differ with that interpretation of fair use are the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), Public Knowledge and the Communications Industry Association (CCIA).

A joint statement from the three groups characterized the RIAA's fair use views as "inaccurate, self-contradictory and a disservice and embarrassment to the respectable institutions that RIAA has enlisted."

The groups noted that many new recording artists post free online music under a Creative Commons license. In addition, they point out, the Audio Home Recording Act of 1992 explicitly prohibits copyright infringement lawsuits for first generation recordings copied to tape or other non-digital media.

According to their statement, "[The] RIAA's denigration of 'anything' shared for free is not only inaccurate, but it also dismissive and disparaging of the young artists that the music industry purports to want to nurture and protect."

While supporting the idea of copyright education, the groups said any such campaign about consumer recording rights and responsibilities should be "factually and legally" accurate and developed by a neutral third party.

"The RIAA back to school message is 'Beware of anything free.' Ironically, it applies most aptly to the free educational DVDs that RIAA is peddling to students and to the bogus legal advice on RIAA's Campus Downloading Web site," Ed Black, president and CEO of the CCIA, said in a statement.

A spokesman for Public Knowledge told internetnews.com the RIAA was providing a one-sided view of copyright law.

At press time, the RIAA had not returned a request for comment.