To use online media files legally, you must ensure you are obtaining two things legally:
The software used to play the file: The software owner often provides the software you need to play the file for free, or requires a service fee that makes downloading and using the media files easy. Currently, most software that plays digital files is legal, even if it allows you to play or share illegal files. For example, programs such as KaZaA have been declared by courts to be legal, but the software itself does not give you legal rights to content (the music or movie files you play using the software).
The file: Each song or movie available online is referred to as a “digital file.” Each digital file should be considered copyrighted content unless you have proof to the contrary. Thus, once you have the software to play the files, you then have to pay for or obtain permission to play any music or movies using that software.
The software needed to play the file is like a CD or DVD player. You buy the player separately from the CDs or DVDs, which you are responsible for legally obtaining.
Getting media files online is like buying CDs or DVDs from a department store. The music company that produces the media distributes it to a department store. As a consumer, it is your responsibility to determine whether the store is a reputable one selling a legal version of the media.
When evaluating Internet services to decide if they provide legal music and movie files, look for statements that they have obtained the copyright permission of the artists or company representing the artists. If you don’t see this information, be suspicious; send a message to the providers asking if they have obtained permission from the copyright holder to sell or distribute these files.
Note: Some Internet services (such as KaZaA and mp5networks) claim to provide unlimited downloading of files using their legal programs. While this statement is true, it is misleading. Although having a program such as KaZaA is completely legal, if you read carefully you will find that the subscription fee you pay is for program support and ad-free searching only. This does not give you legal permission to download and share any file available, even if the software makes it easy to do so. It is ultimately your responsibility to ensure that the files you are downloading and sharing are legal copies.
If you want to purchase access to songs or movies, you must find a service that has negotiated copyright agreements with the companies representing the artists.