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Who Owns Your Music Collection?

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A few days ago a false rumor was spread that Bruce Willis was considering suing Apple over the digital rights of his iTunes collection after he dies. The rumor had it that he wanted to give the collection to his kids. Some people pointed out that Willis could just give his iTunes username and password to his kids or even print a bunch of DVDs. From a practical standpoint there are a few solutions. However, there are questions on whether that is entirely legal. As someone with about $2000 in music, I've often wondered about this myself.

Let's get started at the beginning:

A Brief Review of Music Ownership History

For years people bought music on 8-tracks, records, cassette tapes, CDs, and a variety of other formats (I think Sony is responsible for at least three additional ones). If you plopped down some $10-15 of your money you got yourself some music. It worked reasonably well and consumers understood exactly what they were buying. Then music got digitized and MP3s became popular. Suddenly music could be rapidly shared (unlike a mixed tape) in perfect condition with complete strangers. The music industry (correctly) called foul on this practice. They claimed that when you buy music, you aren't paying for the media itself (cassette, tape), but for the artist(s), the producers, the marketing, and all the things that go into making that CD.

The music industry was right, kind of. Where was that logic when people upgraded from Aerosmith's Greatest Hits on record to cassette to CD? While the music may have been remastered slightly for each medium, upgraders already paid Aerosmith. Why should Aerosmith get paid a second time just because I wanted a different stereo system? What if I broke a CD? Shouldn't I have to pay for the cost of the new media since I already paid for the artists, producers, marketing, etc. previously?

It was convenient for the music ignore these issues in the age of physical media. In the age of digital media, the music industry is changin its tune (pun definitely intended.)

So What is Music Ownership Now?

I wish I had the answer to that question. I'm sure that I own the songs that I bought CDs for. However, does that require me to keep the physical media forever as proof of ownership? For people with large music collections, it makes sense to save some space and move from storing the physical media to digital. (However, putting the CDs in CaseLogic books should be space saving for most people.)

I bought Frank Sinatra's Greatest Hits on Amazon a couple of weeks. At 99 cents for some 20+ songs, I considered it great bargain. However, do I really own those songs? This article from CNET looked through the details and says that I am granted a license to rent the music indefinitely.

What about my soon-to-be-born baby boy? I could give him my CD collection upon my death. Would that give him a license to the music? I presume that it would as the license seems to follow the media rather than the person (this is why I can't get replacement CDs at a low cost). However, when it comes to digital downloads, it seems like the license follows the person. So while I can give him my Frank Sinatra MP3's, I'm not sure whether it would be truly legal. Right now, no one seems to care, but I can imagine a day when Frank Sinatra's heirs get upset that everyone keeps passing down music licenses and the incoming royalties from sales slow to a trickle.

A Solution?

I propose that the music industry embrace the digital license and sell it to people. They would construct a large database that is shared by all the labels (like how Hulu or Orbitz has deals with TV shows and airlines) which would keep track of who owns licenses for which music. Whenever they want to re-download it or get a CD shipped to them they can for the cost of that service (download would be free and the CD might be a couple of dollars). Licenses could be sold as either deeded or not, with separate prices for each. There would have to be some protection for privacy, but that shouldn't be a show-stopper.

The best part of this is that there would be no need for different stores like Amazon, Apple, Google, etc. Who wants to have their music scattered all over the place? If I want to switch from an iPhone to an Android, I don't need to worry about how make Android play nice with iTunes... Google will have already made sure Android will sync my licensed music automatically.

I hope the music industry is headed in that direction. That said to paraphrase the greatest movie ever made, I've never credited the music industry with an overabundance of brains.

Posted on September 5, 2012.

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3 Responses to “Who Owns Your Music Collection?”

  1. Money Beagle says:

    Add this to the list of things I had never once considered until I read about it. Now, it makes me wonder. Interesting points and I wonder what will happen down the road.

  2. “false rumor was spread that Bruce Willis”
    Are you sure you don’t mean a Rumer? :)

    I’m apparently one of the few people who don’t care that I don’t “own” my digital media. I’ve always considered it a purchase of the entertainment experience, rather than the bits and bytes.

    I understand that this is somewhat different than physical media (although, honestly, how transferable is that Kenny Roger 8 track?), but I don’t think the media companies are trying to hide this. Most people know about DRM (I think they do, anyway), and it seems logical (to me) that this means you are not able to transfer files to anyone.

    Of course, one you get far into into the future, the copyrights will expire and the works will become public domain.

  3. […] Man @ Lazy Man and Money writes Who Owns Your Music Collection? – A few days ago a false rumor was spread that Bruce Willis was considering suing Apple over […]

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