Of Bruce Willis, ITunes and “your” music
September 5th, 2012
I’ve probably written a lot on the subject of freedom in licencing already but a recent “news” story and the reaction to it has made me pick up my keyboard again.
Recent reports suggested the actor Bruce Willis was unhappy about the fact that he could not bequeath his iTunes collection. The Apple licencing agreement (that you agree to when you create an iTunes account) says that the content you “buy” and “download” is (in the words of one commentator) “simply loaned” to you. That is you do not own it.
It’s not your music collection
Firstly let’s get one thing out of the way, with few exceptions you have never owned any recorded music or video that you have “bought”. Most of those CDs, DVDs, videos and records that you have on your shelves or in your loft are not yours. Well they are. You own the media (the disc) and the paper the artwork is printed on, you own the plastic case and the ink used in printing. You do not own the music or film on the disc or video. You do not own the images on the paper or the words printed with the ink. You licence those things. This is the way it has been ever since copyright law was created.
You have never legally been able to take a DVD of, say, Die Hard 2, copy it, remix the film and give it to your friends. Actually in some jurisdictions that might be legal but here in the UK we don’t have a “fair usage” definition. Of course this has not stopped people doing such things – witness the rise of music sampling in the 70s and 80s. But don’t kid yourself that you have ever owned the music on those CDs. Remember those lovely “Hope taping is killing live music” stickers on cars in the 1980s? If you owned the music on the records in your record box that campaign would have had no backing (regardless of its lack of merit).
Okay you may not have used those exact words but you get the idea. Many people react with shock when they find out they do not own the music they bought in Our Price in 1987 (yes I know I’m showing my age) but in truth you don’t. The person who wrote the songs probably doesn’t own it either, nor the one who recorded it. Chances are it is “owned” by a media company which has acquired the “rights” to the music you listen to.
One of the articles I have read on this matter (I won’t link to it because I am not trying to attack anyone here – just debunk a few myths) went on to make these statements:
“Apple apparently have the right to freeze an iTunes account if someone has died and they believe someone else is accessing their files”
No they do not have the “right” – as in a legal statute, they have an agreement which you (the user) agreed to and which gives them permission to do that.
“I think if we pay for music or books – and they are not insubstantially priced – we should have the right to pass these on. It seems no different than leaving a loved one the keys to our house, if we own it.”
I’ve explained above that you don’t own the music. Whilst you can pass on physical CDs (because you own the media), you agreed not to do this for your digital content when you opened an iTunes account.
“I can’t physically carry lots of heavy books or stacks of CDs with me. So digital is the route I have to take.”
Yes it is but that doesn’t mean you have to buy restricted digital content. There is a wealth of digital content out there under free[dom] licences. Try some of that. Also you could try buying a CD and ripping it. That’s a while new legal grey area but most commentators say that it would be difficult to prosecute you unless you were distributing digital copies of your CD rather than listening to a single copy in place of the CD on your shelf.
Finally a question appeared on the same piece which asked:
“Does the reality that we only ‘loan’ in our digital ownership, make pirate file sharing more likely?”
As said I am not trying to have a go a anyone, rather debunk some myths. The myth here is that the alternative to “buying digital content” is piracy. It’s a myth the content owners love to perpetuate as it guilt-trips the consumer into paying up when they don’t have to. The realistic alternative of iTunes et al is NOT “piracy”, it’s freedom. Creative Commons and others have long led the way when it comes to freedom in creative works. The problem is not Apple’s licence agreement – others such as Amazon offer greater freedom in theirs. The problem is the illusion they perpetuate that you own what you buy from them. Even if Apple said you were permitted to bequeath your digital music collection to your grandkids the real problem would still be there.
That is the problem of what you can and cannot do with the works you have on your device. You cannot make additional copies for example. You cannot play the tune or video in your church without paying a (some might say protection racket) fee to CCLI first. You cannot print that poem in your church newsletter without breaking the law. You cannot give copies of the music to your worship band to help them learn it without first obtaining a different CCLI licence.
But, but, but
If you are now thinking “But how else would musicians and writers earn their crust” because of the last few remarks I’ve made, I would respond with the fact that the very same argument is used to defend the Apple iTunes agreement which says your kids have to buy their own copies.
The answer is, as you might expect me to say, to release creative works from the restrictive shackles of the copyright “industry”. Copyright, patents and “Intellectual property” all sound a wonderful way for the poor musician to get paid for their work. The reality is that it is an ever tightening web of restrictions which, if allowed to continue unchecked, will choke the life out of the very creativity and innovation it claims to protect.
If the music Bruce Willis had bought was released under licencing with freedom built in (Creative Commons for example), Apple would most certainly have no right to tell him who he could give copies to – even before his death.
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