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Are Your iTunes Really Yours? Bruce Willis and Eminem Are On the Case.

By Genevieve Burgess | Think Pieces | September 6, 2012 | Comments ()


This week Bruce Willis allegedly made some interesting statements about his iTunes library. He's unhappy that when he dies, he can't pass the library onto his daughters the way you would a record collection. There were some initial reports that he was suing, but those are evidently untrue. Some reports indicate that the whole story was overblown. Still, whatever the provenance of the story, it gives us a good opportunity to take a hard look at what exactly you're buying from iTunes and whether it matches up with what you think you've bought and what the record companies want to say they sold you.

Since digital files started gaining prominence, there's been some debate over what purchasing a digital file gets you. The easy answer is a copy of the song to play on your compatible devices. But if iTunes purchases aren't files you can pass from person to person freely, as Mr.Willis wants to, then what has been purchased seems less like a file and more like a license to play that song. You purchase it in your name or for a friend, and it grants you the right to play the song in accordance with the terms and conditions on authorized devices. Ok, but that's not what people think they bought and it's sure as shit not what the record company wants to sell you.

Interestingly enough this issue has been tried in court. Last year a suit brought by Eminem ended with a court stating that digital music should be treated as a license in that case. The judgement officially only applied to Eminem's contract and Universal insists that there is no legal precedent here regarding any other contracts, but that's not surprising given that it's in their best interest to keep people from really questioning this decision. If what you buy when you buy an Eminem song on iTunes is a license, why should it be any different when you buy a song by anyone else? But really, the big question here is why does it matter?

Because aside from giving consumers a better understanding of what they're buying from iTunes (or Amazon, or any other digital download retailer) it comes down to money. Album or single sales are paid out at a rate of 9-12% to the artist whether physical or digital. Money earned through licensing songs is split 50/50 between the artist and the label.

From a legal perspective digital downloads from iTunes or other similar retailers look a lot more like licenses than they do like a true purchased recording. In the first place, no one ever had to confirm they read a "Terms and Conditions" statement before they bought a record. With iTunes you get a certain number of "authorized devices" that you can synch with your account, and when you're done with it you can't sell it back to a used mp3 store where it can languish in a digital bin with everyone else's old 98 Degrees albums. The fact that one high court has ruled that what we call digital downloads can and/or should be treated as licenses in some circumstances means that this is something that more artists should challenge because seeing a 40% increase in your royalties is not a small matter.

At the end of the day it likely doesn't matter to iTunes one way or another. They get their 30% off the top and most people haven't bothered to make too much fuss about the fact that their music comes with many strings attached. Most people probably never notice. The record companies will fight it, but they don't really have much ground to stand on as long as digital files purchased through iTunes or other retailers still have so much legal language attached to them. The specter of Napster still looms large over the music industry, and the price of selling digital files with a full litany of restrictions spelled out for the consumer might be worth the extra royalties. Of course, if the courts do firmly come down on the side of these purchases being a license it's likely that new contracts will just be rewritten and the artist won't get that full 50% cut anyway. Or record companies will compensate by spending more on the artists up front so that those 50% royalties never have to be paid out because the artist's account stays virtually permanently in the red. But that's another column.

As a side note, if you are interested in leaving your children, friends, pets, whatever, a large library of carefully curated music at the end of your life I would recommend purchasing physical and having a dedicated hard drive that you copy the music to in AIFF, WAV, or FLAC files. MP3 and AAC files take a lot of audio information out of songs, so they're of a lower quality* which is why they're small enough to easily send back and forth online.

* And not worthy of expensive headphones.

Genevieve Burgess can seriously talk about this kind of stuff all day.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Jezzer

    The sound quality "lost" in an MP3 is negligible, except for the lowest quality MP3 rips. A high-quality MP3 is indistinguishable from a hipsterFLAC to the human ear.

    Also, it's extremely easy to strip the copy protection from a file downloaded from iTunes.

    But you shouldn't do that, because it's ILLEGAL, boys and girls.


  • Most purchases would more accurately be called licenses if the terms and conditions were enforceable. Hence the reason many companies like the idea of digitising these projects control aspects that were far more theoretical in the old days. But it stretches further than just media. For example here in the UK most tickets for public transport, the cinema or sport are non-transferable. You tend to own the physical paper but not the rights associated with it. A debate was always had in my legal studies over whether this meant it was an actual criminal act to give someone your all day bus ticket or let them use your football season ticket. Once these things are transferred to our electronic wallets and phones it'll be far more difficult to transfer these things and easier to control misuse.

  • michaelceratops

    This is why I'm all for Spotify - there's no pretense; I pay 10 dollars a month, I get temporary use of whatever song I want to listen to at that moment, it doesn't take up disk space and I don't have this weirdo debate on whether or not I can pass them on. It's streaming temporary music, I don't give a fuck.

  • ChuggaWasTaken

    Agreed. I was big on downloading music for a number of years. I'd occasionally buy an album that I really liked, but that amounted to probably 3 albums between 2000-2012. The day Spotify was available in Australia I signed up, and now I listen to all of my music through there.

    I just wish there was a similar service for TV/Movies (Netflix/Hulu aren't available in Australia, and even if they were, from what I've heard they just don't have the range of content).

  • Fabius_Maximus

    iTunes is crap anyway.

    Luckily, I'm allowed to pass a certain number of digital copies of a copyrighted (but not copy-protected) file to friends and relatives here. In Switzerland, the law is even more lax, I believe. It all depends on were you live.

  • Strand

    Someone fake-suing Apple? Was it opposite day? Apple's probably the most litigious institution this side of Scientology.

  • e jerry powell

    You're short-selling Apple on that one.

  • Vi

    Really? People actually voluntarily use iTunes to buy their music when Amazon sells those mp3s at the same price or less without DRM? lulz

  • James

    iTunes no longer uses DRM for their music files.

  • TherecanbeonlyoneAdmin

    You don't own shit. Apple is letting you use their property via a licensing agreement for your own enjoyment. Seriously, drop them a line that you'll be plugging your iPod into a nice big stereo at a wedding dance for 400 people and see what kind of response you get.

  • James

    It isn't Apple's licensing, it is the record labels licensing. Public performance of audio CDs are as restricted as digital files.

  • Genevieve Burgess

    This is true, and it's a distinction I didn't have the room to make because it all gets so technical. You were never allowed to play CDs at public events or in places of business without purchasing a specific right to do so, they were for personal use only.

  • How hard is it to copy those files to another folder and pass them on? Not hard. Not hard at all. If you aren't trying to share them with the whole world, then who the hell is going to know if your kids have full access to your digital music library?

  • space_oddity

    If you buy on iTunes, it isn't infinitely copyable. You have a limited number of versions you can make. If you want to make more than that you have to de-authorize other versions. DRM is here to make your life less simple.

  • James

    iTunes music files are sold without DRM and are smiply plain ol' AAC files and have been for at least the last two years. Their TV and movies still have DRM.

  • e jerry powell

    DRM much? iTunes is all up in that shit with the DRM. There are other services that don't protect their media, but they don't have the market dominance (or device-specific integration) that iTunes does, and most people are simply too lazy to shop around when they can one-click within software they're already using.

  • TheMaskedEmu

    Not so much the case anymore. I hate iTunes as much as the next guy, but the DRM situation has improved significantly since day one.

  • Okay, weird. I haven't had that problem at all. I just use a different media device to listen to them. Then again, I don't usually buy at iTunes.

  • BobbFrapples

    I've rented my living space since I've been out on my own, so the concept of renting my music doesn't get me down as much. When I die, I can't take it with me, and my family doesn't really need my collection of bubble gum pop and techno.

  • GunNut2600

    Wait...people "buy" downloaded music???

    That is the dumbest fucking thing I have ever heard.

  • DeistBrawler

    It's ok. I bet the majority of the people who downvoted your comment also illegally download. They just don't want to admit it.

  • Strand

    Because we're so desperate to seek the validation of strangers... It's the internet, there are no costs for honesty on an anonymous thread. Some of us just happen to be adults who realise that musicians would starve if everyone freeloaded. A $10 spotify Subscription isn't too much to ask.

  • But the artists make sod all via Spotify, despite how Spotify try to spin it.

  • Strand

    It's not perfect, but a certain percentage of something is still better than 0% of another. Spotify stays afloat via advertisements and people will always buy music from iTunes and Amazon.

    That's a huge difference from "You pay for music, you sucker!", which is incredibly juvenile and myopic. It's by that very attitude every PC game these days is crammed full of DRM > cue 'publishers are evil' canard > more piracy > more DRM. As greedy as record labels are, the pirates fired the first shots.

  • James

    Spotify doesn't stay afloat because of advertisements, they stay afloat because venture capitalist firms keep pumping money into the business hoping it'll return a sizable profit for them.

  • Strand

    I'd be interested to hear your theory as to how artists and record labels get paid if everyone shared your attitude. Only reasonably popular bands get to tour, they don't get paid via radio airtime and it's not exactly easy to advertise audio.

  • zeke_the_pig

    I don't use iTunes to 'buy' music and I've never even touched a Kindle. Consign all that ephemeral digital shit to the bin.
    A digital file in my current 'possession' can always be remotely clawed back from me. If you want to take my books or my CDs/vinyls away you'll have to break the door down first. And then the real fight will begin.

  • Carlito

    Presumably they'd have to trod on your lawn before breaking your door down?

  • hipster

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