Is It Illegal to Sell A Band’s Unreleased Music?

The Situation

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine was perusing one of his favorite music pirating websites. He came across some unreleased songs by System of a Down that they had scrapped. From what he could tell, the band had not deemed the songs worthy of being on an album, but they somehow leaked anyway. The songs were on sale for $0.99, which does not produce much of a profit for the seller. However, a question came to my mind: is this illegal?

The Defense

Upon asking this question to my friend, he gave me this as a reply: “Since they have no intention of releasing these songs, they’re not losing anything. Plus, I want them.” I want them. What a good rationale for any unsavory action.

I argued with him back and forth for quite a while about this topic. He maintained his stance that since System of a Down decided not to include these songs on any of their albums, they were automatically just up for grabs. A simple look into copyright law solved this debate.

The Rebuttal

Copyright law states that a song is copyrighted the moment it goes into a fixed, tangible form. Lyrics on a page, sound recordings, and CDs are all examples of fixed, tangible forms of music. While filing the copyright for a song with the Copyright Royalty Board stands up better in court, the immediate copyright can still protect an artist against infringement.

It is common knowledge that it is against the law to steal other people’s things. It is even worse to profit from it. Music is no different, even though it is not a flat screen TV or a brand new car. Internet piracy ravaged the music industry beyond repair in the early 2000s. Why give money to a third party that is completely disconnected from the band you enjoy? If you are going to spend money on their music, shouldn’t you just support them directly?

Do we know for sure that System of Down filed the copyrights for these songs with the Copyright Royalty Board? No. However, that does not make a difference. These songs are theirs to sell even if they have no intention of profiting from them. Even if the thought of someone stealing a useless item from you does not bother you, it does not make the act any less illegal. How you feel personally about a law has no bearing on what the courts believe.

The Answer

Technically, the selling of unreleased or “scrapped” music is illegal. Unless System of a Down publicly gave up their copyright to these songs, no one else has the right to sell them. Now, will they sue the person who was selling their music? Probably not, but the message still stands. With 57 million people still illegally pirating music, artists are not even making a fraction of the money they used to make. If we want to continue consuming music, we have to support musicians in a monetary way. The desire for free or unreleased music does not override the illegality of obtaining it.

By Taylor Turner