Ownership in a Digital Age

No Comments 13 September 2012

Ownership in a Digital Age

Just as the rumors of Morgan Freeman’s death have been greatly exaggerated, so have the rumors that action flick icon Bruce Willis is suing Apple for the right to bequeath his iTunes library to his kids.

According to a story published on September 2 in the U.K. Daily Mail (a totally reputable source for the tinfoil-hat wearing populace), Willis is turning his considerable butt-kicking skills to the task of taking on Apple for full rights to thousands of dollars of legally downloaded music. While the story has proven to be just a bunch of malarkey, it has started a serious and legitimate discussion on ownership of digital iTunes media. As it turns out, you may not own that digital content you paid for.

This probably comes as no surprise to anyone, and if you’re the type to read terms and conditions fully (are there people out there who really, honestly do?) you probably already know this. According to the painfully long and incredibly dry iTunes terms of agreement, you’re only “licensing” the music that you’ve paid for. You don’t own it and you don’t have the right to sell it to anyone else for profit. The same goes for music you’ve downloaded through that “other” big league digital content provider, Amazon. Which is all fine and dandy, until someone dies. Then what? Apparently, neither Apple or Amazon have considered that possibility and they probably won’t address it anytime soon.

And so we go in search of the answer elsewhere. According to law, there’s something called the “first-sale doctrine” that lets you legally sell or give (or will) copyrighted material that you paid for to someone else, such as CDs, DVDs and books. But the first-sale doctrine doesn’t apply to digital content, which basically means that you aren’t allowed to pass down your musical legacy to anyone. At least not legally.

So what happens when you die? Does your iPod automatically erase itself? Well, no. But who knows what wild and wacky solutions will be thought of in the coming years, especially if you house your music collection in the cloud. We’ve already seen Kindle evidence that this is possible. Back in 2009, Amazon deleted downloaded copies of two George Orwell books – 1984 and Animal Farm – from thousands of Kindle e-readers after it was discovered that the copies were sold by a company that didn’t own the rights. Amazon smartly avoided a P.R. nightmare by refunding customers their purchases, but the incident opened people’s eyes to the very real and somewhat disconcerting fact that when it comes to digital content, what’s here today can very well be gone tomorrow.

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