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

Learn the difference between iTunes file types

Purchased vs Protected files in itunes - side by side screenshot

The songs in your iTunes library may seem essentially the same because the songs are 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

To identify a song's file type, right-click the song and select Song Info. The File tab shows the file type, labeled as Kind.

The iTunes file-info screenshot.

The Most Common Music Filetypes in iTunes Explained

The song's file type has to do with where it came from. Songs that are ripped from 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: This is a standard AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) file. Most likely, this file was created by converting an MP3 or ripping the song from CD using iTunes' built-in AAC encoder. AAC is the file format designed to be the successor to MP3.
  • Matched AAC audio file: This is a standard AAC audio file, except that it was downloaded to your computer or iOS device from your iCloud account, using iTunes Match.
  • Apple Music AAC audio file: This is a standard AAC file, except that this one was added to your library from Apple Music. Because of that, it has some 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: This is a standard MP3 file, the classic digital audio format. It may have been downloaded from the web or the song was ripped from a CD using iTunes' built-in MP3 encoder.
  • Protected AAC audio file: A Protected AAC file was the default file type for songs purchased from the iTunes Store prior to the introduction of the Digital Rights Management (DRM)-free iTunes Plus format in April 2009. Protected, in this case, means the DRM built into the file restricts it to being used on devices authorized with the Apple ID used to buy the song. This 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. This file was purchased at the iTunes Store, but it no longer has 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.

According to TUAW, the Protected AAC/iTunes Plus songs have information embedded in them that identifies the user who bought and shared the song by name. This means that 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.