Who Owns Your Music?

I’ve been a little surprised at the internet the last couple of days. I know. It shouldn’t shock me after this long.

1. The Problem

Apple gave an album away for free this week. U2’s new album Songs of Innocence showed up in your “purchased” library last week if you have an iTunes account. I went ahead and downloaded the album on my iPad and Mac and took a listen. It was good. Exactly what you’d expect from U2.

What made the internet angry was that if auto-downloads were enabled in iTunes the album would pop up in the library of every device on that account.

This isn’t the first time this kind of behavior has resulted in a massive backlash. In 2009 Amazon recalled a version of 1984 that violated their self-publishing license agreement. Amazon angered users by pulling the book from customer’s devices without their specific permission. Customers, agreed to this in principle under the Kindle’s EULA, but that made little difference.

2. The Root of the Problem

At the moment, the companies that sell the licenses to us own the content, not us. For example, we can’t pass down our digital content when we die because the license agreement doesn’t allow it.

There are some attempts to change the way this works. Comixology sells some of their comics as DRM-free files that belong to the purchaser after the sale. These solutions don’t address the root of the problem, though.

The problem stems from the disconnect that arises from perceived ownership. We think the media we payed for belongs to us. Content providers believe the media ultimately belongs to them.

We could take this conversation in a lot of different directions, but let’s focus on our attitudes about digital media. I can think of 3 things this behavior says about us.

  • We feel about our digital libraries like we do about our persons and our homes
  • We regard any remote handling of our digital libraries like we would an invasion of our persons or our homes
  • We consider that violation as breach of faith between ourselves and the company doing the handling.

Let’s consider each of these statements in turn.

3. My Phone is Me

We’ve come to regard our digital possessions like we do our physical possessions. This is both reasonable and problematic. It’s reasonable to expect that something that we pay for, control, and treat as our own belongs to us. It’s problematic because when we buy a book, we’re buying a license to use it rather than paying for a copy of the book itself.

Amazon was acting well within the license agreement when they recalled the copies of 1984. The copies they removed from the devices didn’t belong to the user, after all.

Apple thought they were doing something nice for their customers. The company bought each of their customers a $9.99 album. But customers reacted as if Apple had come to their house, climbed through the back window, and dropped a stack of LPs on the dining room table.

This leads us to the second point.

4. Don’t Touch Without Permission

In our mind, the digital library belongs to us. We have purchased the content and curated a collection. Remote management by the companies selling the licenses feels like burglary or vandalism.

There is a disconnect between what we and content providers expect. It’s an issue that we’ll have to address as we plow forward into the digital age. We need to come to grips with transition of companies from simple retailers to content providers.

The reality is that the content providers are the content owners. We no longer own a copy of a disk, we own a license to use the copy. The difference is subtle, but crucial. Perhaps that’s not the way media should work, but that’s what we’re faced with at the moment.

This leads us to the final point.

5. Action Without Permission is Inexcusable

We perceive remote management of “our” digital libraries as a breach of our trust. We want businesses to request case-by-case permission to make changes to our library. Implicit agreement is not enough.

Consider the case of email. We sign up for newsletters and bonus deals in our inboxes left and right. But think of the last time someone sent you an unsolicited marketing email. You probably deleted the email immediately. Odds are good that you sent a rather pointed reply to leave you off that email list.

Did you ever feel as outraged by junk mail in your mailbox? I think the devices and services we use are far more personal to us than even our physical property because we carry and use them everywhere we go.

6. The Solution

There are never easy answers to these kind of questions. Who owns the digital libraries we’ve created? We could spend weeks exploring the intricacies of copyright law, but I doubt the solution lies there (that way lies madness).

But I do think we need to take a long look at what we’re paying for when we buy digital media. It’s important that we as a culture understand the benefits and rights that transaction affords us. We need to understand these benefits and rights not only on an intellectual level, but an emotional level.

If nothing changes in how our we handle digital media we’re going to have to deal with the fact that someone else has the keys to our library. Do Apple’s or Amazon’s actions bother you? What do you think we need to do about it?

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