Why Are Some iTunes Songs 'Purchased' and Others 'Protected'?

Learn the difference between iTunes file types

The songs in your iTunes library may seem essentially the same because they're all audio files. But, if you look closely, you'll find out that even though many of the songs are the same kind of audio file, others differ in major ways. The ways that songs differ can determine where you get them and what you can do with them.

Instructions in this article apply to version 12 of iTunes, originally released in 2014.

How to Find a Song's File Type in iTunes and macOS Music

The process to identify a song's file type is almost identical in both iTunes and the Music app in macOS Catalina (10.15). Here's what to do.

  1. Open iTunes or Music and navigate to your Music Library.

    • In iTunes, click Songs under the Library section on the left when you're on the Library tab.
    • In Music, select Songs under the Library heading in the left pane.
    Songs section of Library in macOS Music
  2. Right-click the song title in your library to open the options menu.

  3. Select Get Info.

    In iTunes, the command is called Song Info.

    Get Info for a sing in macOS Music
  4. Click the File tab.

    File tab in Info window of Music
  5. The file type appears next to Kind.

    File tab in Music

The Most Common File Types in iTunes and Music

The song's file type has to do with where it came from. Songs that you rip from a CD show up in iTunes based on your import settings (usually as AAC or MP3 files). Songs purchased from the iTunes Store, Amazon, or Apple Music might be something else entirely. Here are some of the most common kinds of files found in an iTunes library and what each one means:

  • AAC audio file: a standard AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) file comes from converting an MP3 or ripping a song from a CD using iTunes' built-in AAC encoder. AAC is the successor to MP3.
  • Matched AAC audio file: a standard AAC audio file, except that your computer or iOS device downloaded it from your iCloud account using iTunes Match.
  • Apple Music AAC audio file: a standard AAC file, except that Apple Music. added it to your library. This file type has some Digital Rights Management (DRM) restrictions, such as requiring an active Apple Music subscription. If you cancel your subscription, you'll lose access to the song. You also can't burn Apple Music songs to a CD.
  • MPEG audio file: a standard MP3 file, the classic digital audio format. You may have downloaded it from the web, or iTunes ripped the song from a CD using iTunes' built-in MP3 encoder.
  • Protected AAC audio file: This was the default file type for songs users purchased from the iTunes Store prior to the introduction of the DRM-free iTunes Plus format in April 2009. Protected, in this case, means DRM restricts it to devices authorized with the Apple ID used to buy the song. This restriction prevents the song from being copied or shared.
  • Purchased AAC audio file: A Purchased AAC file is what a Protected AAC file becomes when it's been upgraded to the iTunes Plus format. These files no longer have the DRM-based copy restrictions. All songs at the iTunes Store sold after April 2009 are in the DRM-free Purchased AAC audio file format.

Can You Share Purchased Music?

Not only is sharing music illegal (and takes money out of the pockets of the musicians who made the music), but there are some things in Protected AAC files that make it possible for record companies to find out who illegally shared a song.

Protected AAC/iTunes Plus songs have information embedded in them that identifies the user who bought and shared the song by name. If you share your music and record companies want to track you down and sue you for copyright infringement, it's going to be easier.​​

One exception to this rule is music that you share among family members who are set up as part of Family Sharing. That kind of music sharing won't lead to any legal problems.