Technology and copyright issues for digital music have long been hot topics in Australia and worldwide. They are at the forefront of change for content and intellectual property business models involving the Internet.

In this regularly updated article, we track change in digital music since 1979. The timeline sets out developments both for digital music technology and music copyright.

What a long, strange trip it’s been“, to quote the Grateful Dead.

1979: Sony launches on 1 July 1979 the Walkman TPS-L2, a portable audio cassette player which started the personal audio market category.

1980: Philips and Sony release in June the Red Book for digital audio discs, a product of their joint task force of engineers designing the CD. It is named after one of a set of color-bound books that contain the technical specifications for all CD and CD-ROM formats.

1981: IBM enters the personal computer (PC) market. This is after the Altair, Apple II, Commodore and other products first developed the market from the mid-1970s onwards.

1982: On 24 January 1984 Steve Jobs of Apple gave the first on-stage demonstration of the Macintosh computer. It later become known as the Macintosh 128K. It had 128 kilobytes of RAM, an 8 MHz Motorola 68000 microprocessor, a 9 inch black and white screen, and a single-sided 3.5 inch floppy disk drive.

1982: The market launch in November in Japan of digital audio compact discs and players by Sony and Philips heralds the digital age in music.


  • Sony Corp. of America et al v. Universal City Studios, Inc et al 464 U.S. 417 (1984), a US Supreme Court decision ruled that “[t]he sale of copying equipment… does not constitute contributory infringement if the product is widely used for legitimate, unobjectionable purposes, or, indeed, is merely capable of substantial noninfringing uses.” This Sony Betamax case had a major impact on legal issues relating to reproduction of the work of content owners in future copying devices, and even software systems such as used by Grokster.
  • Richard Stallman, a programmer and researcher at MIT, begins a project to build a free operating system. It is the birth of the GNU project, into which Linus Torvalds’ Linux kernel was added to produce the GNU/Linux operating system.

1985: The Yellow Book CD-ROM standard is established by Sony and Philips. It uses the same physical format as audio CDs and sets standards.


  • "sony_dat_player"The sale of digital audio tape (DAT) players begins in Japan. They enable unlimited copies of a recording without the deterioration in sound quality evident in analog tapes. According to Engaget the final model, Sony’s TCD-D100 (pictured right), was released in the US in July 1997 and sales stopped in 2005. The introduction of DAT players prompted music industry lobbying resulting in the US in the Audio Home Recording Act of 1992.
  • In September, Groupe Spécial Mobile Memorandum of Understanding signed in Copenhagen by 15 telecommunications companies from 13 countries in Europe. It led to the development of an open standard, the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM). Twenty years later, by mid-2007, 700 GSM mobile phone operators worldwide served calls, music and other data to 2.5 billion people, across 218 countries and territories.
  • Digital Audio Tape (DAT or R-DAT) developed and introduced by Sony in 1987.

1988: Audio CD sales exceed vinyl record sales.

1990: Tim Berners-Lee develops URLs, HTML and HTTP on a NeXT computer and thereby invents the World Wide Web at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland.

1991: Microsoft launches Windows 3.0 operating system with multimedia extensions, about six months after the Sound Blaster card brings digital audio sound capabilities to the PC platform.

1992: More digital audio recording technology enters the domestic consumer market. Responding to the resulting controversy between the music industry and the consumer electronics industry, the US Congress introduces the The Audio Home Recording Act 1992. Meanwhile, Sony in November releases the MiniDisc (MD), a magneto-optical disc for digitised audio.

1993: MP3 recognised as an industry standard. For more on the history of MP3s, see the second half of Grappling with fallacies: music formats and DRM.


  • "timeline_win95"“Head First” by Aerosmith released as the first legal online download. Hear it here.
  • Microsoft launches Windows 95 with the first 32-bit Media Player.


  • Audio CD-ROM released in Australia. It was both an audio CD and a CD-ROM. The music was by GF4 and the developer was Pacific Advanced Media Studio using its patented Active Audio technology. It may be a small event in this timetable but it was an achievement from Sydney, Australia.
  • Polygram Records introduces a prototype record label website for consumers at the 1995 National Association of Recording Merchandisers (NARM) convention in San Diego. Soon after that record store websites proliferate, followed by labels and artists.
  • The Australian Performing Right Association Ltd (APRA) succeed on appeal in the Full Court of the Federal Court and in the High Court of Australia in Australian Performing Right Association v Telstra Corporation Ltd 131 ALR 141. Telstra is held liable for telephone music on hold services, ie recordings of copyright music played over the telephone while a caller is placed on “hold”.

1996: The World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) concluded treaties drafted to adapt rights in sound recordings and other works for the digital era. The other works include literary and artistic works such as writings and computer programs, original databases, musical works, audiovisual works, works of fine art and photographs. They are the WIPO Copyright Treaty (WCT) and the WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty (WPPT), collectively known as the “WIPO Internet Treaties”. They set out the minimum standard of intellectual property protection for Internet delivery of copyrighted works. The WIPO Internet Treaties update and supplement the major existing WIPO treaties on copyright and related rights, eg the Berne and Rome Conventions.


  • Passing of the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act, responding to digital media developments. "diamond"
  • Diamond Multimedia Inc is first in the handheld MP3 market in the US with its Rio player. It debuted with a maximum of 32MB of flash memory in September 1998. On 9 October, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) files a complaint alleging that Diamond’s Rio MP3 player (pictured right) violates the Audio Home Recording Act 1992. The court refused to enter a preliminary injunction barring sale of the Rio player. The appeal affirmed the lower court’s decision. The court states the Rio “is paradigmatic noncommercial personal use entirely consistent with the purposes of the Act.” It says devices like the Rio “space-shift” files. Space-shifting become analogous to “time-shifting” TV programs using video. However, Rio players were limited with storage capacity  at most 64MB and data transfer via USB 1.0.


  • Portable music players available from a number of manufacturers, eg Liquid Audio and a2b.
  • Napster launches in July led by Shawn Fanning. Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) sues Napster. Within 18 months Napster will amass close to 80 million registered users.
  • Microsoft launches Windows 2000 which unifies Windows Media Player with the streaming functionality previously found in NetShow server. It adds support for Microsoft’s v3 video codec and Windows Media Audio codec.


  • launched Users signed into an account and then inserted a CD. The software identified the CD, and then gave the user access to the content. The five major music labels, headed by RIAA, brought a lawsuit. The case was ultimately settled with paying over US$54 m.
  • Metallica files suit against Napster.
  • Napster ordered by US Judge to stop unauthorised song distribution; judgement is later appealed.


  • Napster found liable for copyright infringement by US Court of Appeals, in A&M Records, Inc. et al v Napster, Inc.
  • Adoption of the European directive on the “harmonisation of certain aspects of copyright and related rights in the information society”.
  • Napster’s website fades to black.
  • RIAA and Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) take legal action against KaZaA, Morpheus and Grokster."itunes_icon"
  • Apple launches iTunes 1.0 media player software in January 2001, based on the SoundJam MP software bought by Apple in 2000.
  • Apple launches the iPod.
  • Microsoft launches Windows XP with Integrated CD burning in the operating system, improved user-interface, DVD playback, improved sound quality, Intelligent Media Management, improved MP3 support including optional MP3 encoding, and improved device support.

2002: The WIPO Internet treaties come into force (WIPO Copyright Treaty in March and WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty in May).


  • US court finds Morpheus and Grokster not liable for alleged piracy violations.
  • MySpace founded providing Do-It-Yourself webpage building functionality for non-technical users.
  • In April, Universal and EMI brought a law suit against Hummer Winblad, the venture capital firm that funded Napster at a certain stage of development.
  • Apple’s iTunes Music Store launches in US. The iTunes store provides a flat pricing scheme, 99 cents per download, up to three copies on devices. Thomas Hormby writes “Apple was not the first to create such a store, but it was the first not to fial spectacularly.”
  • P2P Donkeymania shut down by a Spanish court decision.
  • RIAA begins lawsuits against individual file-sharers.
  • The Dutch Supreme Court rules KaZaA not in violation of copyright in BUMA/STEMRA case. By 2004 KaZaA boasted of having 100 million registered users.

2004: European Parliament approves final text of the European Copyright Enforcement Directive.


  • JASRAC wins lawsuit against “File Rogue”, aka the Japanese Napster.
  • The US Supreme Court unanimously rules against Grokster in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc et al v Grokster, Ltd et al. The Court said: “We hold that one who distributes a device with the object of promoting its use to infringe copyright, as shown by clear expression or other affirmative steps taken to foster infringement, is liable for the resulting acts of infringement by third parties.” A Findlaw archive stores briefs on the case and further commentary.
  • Criminal sentences for copyright infringement handed down for distributors and one user of Taiwanese P2P, KURO.
  • CEO of Korean P2P Soribada indicted on illegal file sharing charges.
  • Entertainment industry reaches settlement with Grokster while P2P Soribada shuts down site after court verdict.


  • Federal Court of Australia finds in Universal Music Australia v Sharman License Holdings against against Kazaa (related to Sharman License Holdings) and subsequent legal backroom negotiations result in Kazaa in late July 2006 agreeing to pay A$152 million (US$115 million).
  • Microsoft launches its Zune audio player.
  • Australian Copyright Act 1968 amended to respond to the “Digital Agenda”.
  • Australian Full Federal Court finds against a file-sharing website,, an ISP and their respective company directors in Cooper v Universal Music Australia Pty Ltd.
  • Moves in France, Germany, Norway and some other Scandinavian countries have the affect of seeking to curtail the dominance of Apple’s iPod and seek interoperability for music formats and players.
  • By the end of 2006, for phones there were 4 billion subscribers worldwide, with 1.27 billion fixed lines and 2.68 billion mobile accounts. Source: the 8th edition of “Trends in Telecommunication Reform: the Road to NGN“.


  • Alcatel-Lucent US$1.52 billion in its MP3 patent suit against Microsoft: see Grappling with fallacies: music formats and DRM. Meanwhile iTunes and other digital retailers start to abandon DRM to address consumer expectation of compatibility between hardware devices.
  • Viacom files a Complaint to sue YouTube seeking US1 billion in damages for alleged copyright breaches: see Viacom to YouTube: “I want my MTV”.
  • In the US, CD sales are down 20% so far 2007, according to the Wall Street Journal.
  • Australia’s Attorney General, Philip Ruddock, announces on 26 April 2007 that Australia is “joining two international treaties aimed at boosting copyright protection for material on the Internet.”
  • China announces it will accede to the WIPO Internet Treaties in the second half of 2007. WIPO maintains lists of countries which have implemented treaties administered by WIPO.
  • The United States releases its . Section 301 of the US Trade Act of 1974 is used by US federal authorities to regularly monitor alleged intellectual property piracy, counterfeiting and infringement country by country worldwide. In the “priority watch list” in 2007 are Russia and China, among others. But in the Executive Summary they are also noted as countries which show “positive progress”. There is a 10 page overview of the current IP position in China at the end of the Report. The Report also sets out significant concerns with respect to such US trading partners as Argentina, Chile, Egypt, India, Israel, Lebanon, Thailand, Turkey, Ukraine, and Venezuela.
  • 29 June 2007 – launch date in the US for iPhone by Apple Inc., the company which dropped “computer” from its name in 2007 after settling a third name dispute court case with The Beatles.
    • The iPhone has functionality borrowing from, extending or reinventing – the iPod, cell phones, cameras, computer, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and geographic navigators (given that Google Maps can be accessed).
    • With the iPhone (picture right in “home” screen format) users can interact with various data formats (including music, video, text and photos), multi-task, access the Internet for email or type email with the touchscreen keyboard,  do music downloads and browse the Web. For phone call standards it uses Quad-band GSM + EDGE and Wi-Fi and Blue-tooth 2.0.
    • iPhone sells for US$499 (4 Gig) and US$599 for (8 Gig).
    • By early 2007 Apple had filed over 200 patents for iPhone.
  • Under new rates announced in the US for Internet Radio, Webcasters are required to pay to SoundExchange US$0.08 per song per play rising to US$0.19 by 2010.


  • Fortune Research captures the prevalence in a graphic (accompanying) of song purchases versus album purchases on iTunes as well as the estimated revenue split per song sold on iTunes.
  • In the United States iTunes music sales exceed the former number one, Wal-Mart, having passed Amazon and Target in 2007.
  • To provide full-track streaming music, CBS-owned LastFM announces licensing agreements with all major labels and 150,000 independents.


  • Between its launch in 2003 and 2010 iTunes had sold more than 10 billion according to the Digital Music Reports for 2010 of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI).
  • October 2010: Peer to Peer file sharing site, LimeWire, has an injunction imposed against it in the United States by record label plaintiffs. LimeWire is prevented from “the searching, downloading, uploading, file trading and/or file distribution functionality, and/or all functionality”. See further: Arista Records LLC v. Lime Group LLC.


  • March 2011: Amazon announces Amazon Cloud Player for Web and Android.
  • Spotify debuts in USA.
  • By the end of 2011, there were 5.9 billion mobile device subscriptions (The International Telecommunication Union, 2012). A percentage of those were used by their users for playing digital music on their phones or tablets.


  • It is certain, there will be more change! Consumer preferences are evolving in many directions.
  • Current business models for digital music income include:
    • (1) sale of a digital track downloaded to a consumer device;
    • (2) sale of a digital track stored on a central server (cloud computing) and available on demand;
    • (3) advertising-based user-influenced radio streaming: eg Spotify (using a peer-to-peer network of subscribers), Pandora (playlist-based streaming radio service with a tiered system, with playlists determined by collaborative filtering), MOG and Rdio;
    • (4) advertising-based on-demand listening; and
    • (5) subscription-based on-demand streaming.
Noric Dilanchian