"Ripping" Off the Music Industry: Stream-Ripping, a File-Sharing Alternative?

Nora Sleeth is a JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School and currently enrolled in the course Law & Social Change: Law & Music, in Winter 2011. As part of the course requirements, students are asked to write a blog on a topic of their choice.

It is no secret that the file-sharing phenomenon is a frequently debated, highly contentious issue. The possibilities for copyright infringement are not, however, confined to P2P networks. For example, file conversion website Zamzar allows users to copy and paste a URL from YouTube and have it converted to an MP3 file that is then emailed to the user and downloaded.  The process used is called stream ripping.

Technology enables consumers to access their favourite music through increasingly innovative methods. The ability to convert a file from one format to another is highly useful for both personal and business purposes. It also enables consumers to illegally copy and download music. For example, file conversion website Zamzar allows users to copy and paste a URL from YouTube and have it converted to an MP3 file that is then emailed to the user and downloaded.  The process used is called stream ripping; it extracts an audio copy from the audio-visual stream found on YouTube. It is not hard to understand Zamzar’s appeal. Music listeners often complain that legal music downloading sites lack variety and even P2P sites, such as Frostwire, are somewhat limited in selection.  Zamzar simply provides another avenue for listeners who are only able to find a specific song on YouTube.

A quick Google search for file conversion or stream ripping yields primarily “how-to” instructions or programs that provide these services. Stream ripping is primarily associated with Internet radio and a number of programs allow users to record the audio from Internet radio sites. Interestingly, it is difficult to locate any solid information regarding copyright law or the approach of the record industry to stream ripping technology. This is particularly surprising given the industry’s response to file-sharing. Further, it has been hypothesized that users may switch from P2P to stream ripping in an effort to avoid legal repercussions. This is especially significant in the United States, where the threat of having file-sharing activity detected by the RIAA may drive users to search for untraceable methods of downloading.  Given the number of stream ripping sites that provide alternative options for illegal downloaders, it is difficult to understand why stream ripping and file conversion sites, such as Zamzar, do not stand in file-sharing’s spotlight.

Bill C-32, if it had been passed, may have provided a tool for combating sites that enable stream ripping and may have subsequently drawn much-needed attention to these file-sharing alternatives. Clause 18 of the Bill proposed that it be made an infringement for a person to provide “a service that the person knows or should have known is designed primarily to enable acts of copyright infringement”. This clause had been criticized for its ambiguity, as it was difficult to understand how the criteria outlined in the Bill will apply. Stream ripping is but one example. While some stream ripping sites clearly induce users to infringe copyright, others, such as Zamzar, do not necessarily present themselves as a means of obtaining music illegally.

Although Zamzar is not a Canadian site, it provides a useful illustration of some of the criticisms that were laid against Bill C-32’s “inducement clause”. Zamzar allows users to convert almost any file format into another file format. This is the site’s primary purpose. Bill C-32 listed “whether the service has significant uses other than to enable acts of copyright infringement” as a factor relevant to the determination of whether a service has infringed copyright law; however, it also specified that “whether the person had knowledge that the service was used to enable a significant number of acts of copyright infringement” as another consideration. It is unclear how such opposing factors could have been balanced in the case of sites such as Zamzar. Although the site has a legitimate and highly practical use, it would be very hard to argue that the creators are not aware of the potential for copyright infringement.

  1. there will always be a way to steal and without serious fines and enforcement no one is really worried or compliant

  2. I agree and I also think that the lack of information available on stream ripping as a means of copyright infringement perpetuates the belief that it is harmless.

    Thank you for your comment.

  3. I suspect the music industry has avoided the topic of stream ripping because they can’t shut down the streams as easily as they can p2p links to files.

    They may be able to go after sites like Zamzar in some jurisdictions if they can show that the sites actively advertise copyright infringement purposes. But by doing so, they will popularize stream ripping.

    Users, however, can perform stream ripping on their own computer, with a web browser and a legal conversion program. The music industry cannot detect this, as the users’ access to the stream will look no different than standard streaming access to the content.

    The only option at that point would be to start taking down all streams. This, of course, will have a much greater public relations backlash than suing individual p2p users.

  4. Tej, I think that is a great hypothesis regarding the music industry hoping to avoid popularizing another way to download illegally. When I was researching this topic, I was surprised at the lack of information given that stream ripping is easily done with a conversion program, as you mentioned.

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