by Jeremy Malcolm, Internet lawyer
What can and can't you do with MP3 music files? Most people are aware that MP3s of copyright music are illegal, but many are not aware of what this actually means in practice. Does it stop you from downloading MP3s, or only from uploading them or sending them to other people? The answer is, both.
There are exceptions, of course: MP3 files that are made available from band or record company Web sites or http://www.mp3.com are legal to download; not because they are not copyright, but because you have been licensed by the copyright owner to download them for free. This doesn't necessarily also give you a right to distribute these MP3s yourself: check the original Web site for a licence agreement which will tell you whether you can or not.
What about ripping your own CDs to create MP3 files? Well, that too is illegal - although even if such an infringement came to the copyright owner's attention, the likelihood that anything would be done about it might be thought to be pretty small. It is equally difficult - but not impossible - for copyright owners to track those who exchange MP3s using Napster or IRC, and more difficult still for them to track the use of Gnutella for the same purpose.
Under Australian law, there is one very little-known exception to the rule that prevents you from listening to copyright MP3s. This is that MP3 audio that is delivered in streaming format (ie. audio that you listen to as it downloads, but which isn't permanently saved to your computer) is probably not illegal for you to access. It is, however, illegal for the person who provides the streaming MP3, and in any case it is quite rare to find MP3s delivered in this format.
Happy listening - but stay legal if you can!