Is it legal to rip physical media that you own?

Yeah, except you don’t actually own it. Every single disc of any type you have in your house isn’t really a purchase, it’s a license. That’s right, you’re just paying for the right to use the thing and you don’t technically own it.

But that doesn’t mean you’re a criminal for ripping it onto your hard drive. You have a legal right to make a copy of a disc you own, so long as it’s for your private use. You don’t have a right to give that copy to anyone else or to play the file publicly. But really, that only covers music ripped from CDs.

It’s definitely still illegal to rip movies from Blu-ray discs or DVDs, because while you can technically make a copy, you can’t legally defeat the copy protection on the disc which is making it impossible to copy. That’s a small loophole but an important one. There are a few exceptions, like for genuinely academic purposes, but make no mistake… every time you copy a movie to a hard drive you’re breaking the law.

By the way, it’s also illegal to give people a copy of what you’ve ripped, and it’s illegal to receive a copy of what someone else has ripped if you could say that an average person would know that it’s copyrighted material. It’s illegal to download copyrighted stuff from a server, even stuff like YouTube videos.

Boy, this is beginning to seem like a drag.

Cards on the table, you probably already know everything that I’ve told you. It probably hasn’t stopped you, any more than a speed limit sign stops you from going as fast as you want on an open highway. And really, you probably know that the copyright police (which, by the way, do exist) probably aren’t going to bust your door down because you put Frozen on an SD card so your kid can watch it on her tablet, over and over and over and over.

It’s one of those little hypocrisies that makes us all criminals, every single day. Heck, you’re a criminal when you check the box that says “I have read and I understand the terms and conditions.” Come on, no you haven’t and everyone knows it. But what are the alternatives? The copyright laws (specifically, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act) exist to give the authorities the right to go after the really bad offenders. You can argue that the law is poorly written (it is) and that it doesn’t really work with the way we use our content today (it doesn’t) but it works better than having no law at all, which is what we seem to be able to get in Congress today, I’m sure you agree.

In the meantime, the one thing that’s clear, luckily, is that it’s definitely legal to own a device for playing that content and so you’re ok buying memory cards, media players or hard drives without worrying about that. Also, for the record, since your kid doesn’t have legal standing and could not be expected to understand copyright law at her age, she’s not going to jail for watching Frozen for the nine millionth time. On the other hand… maybe after two years of listening, you might be willing to tell her that she could. Your call, I won’t judge.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.