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Should Digital Collections Be Worth Something?

Most people don’t care whether they own music downloads or not.

Of the more than 8 million people that are estimated to buy a Kindle this year, only a small fraction of them understand that the ebooks bought on the device are licensed – not owned – which means they can’t lend or sell their titles. By agreeing to Amazon’s terms of service, which they didn’t read, they’ve accepted these conditions. Soon, single ebook lending may be allowed on the Kindle, but users won’t be allowed to buy used ebooks.

The “first sale” doctrine indicates that consumers can sell their physical books, give them to a library, or do just about anything else. This legal principle covers CDs, DVDs, and videogames too. It enables the used marketplace and retailers like eBay and Amazon to exist and sell used titles. In the digital age, this concept is under fire. It’s no longer clear that consumers should be granted the same rights when they buy digital downloads.

You own an iPod and Kindle, but not the songs or books on them.

“In the context of a downloaded book or music file, the Copyright Office suggests that first sale rights could be limited to the medium used to make the copy,” Seth Greenstein writes. “In other words, to resell your digital downloads, you must also sell your hard drive, ebook reader, or iPod.” However, he notes, even those rights may be forfeited by “clicking” agree to the terms of service that Amazon and iTunes put forth.

This amounts to 10 billion music downloads – that nobody owns.

As far back as 2006, the RIAA said in a statement to MTV that, “Selling an iPod preloaded with music is no different than selling a DVD onto which you have burned your entire music collection.  Either act is a clear violation of U.S. copyright law. The RIAA is monitoring this means of infringement.” To which they conclude, “In short: seller beware.”

So, fans can’t resell music downloads on eBay or Amazon – it’s not allowed. Nor can they try to sell an iPod that’s full of songs that you bought. That’s illegal. Thus, digital collections are worth nothing. And as I suggested, most people don’t care about this.

Should we care? Should digital collections be worth something? As someone that recently purchased an iPod and Kindle, this question has renewed interest to me. 

What’s your take?

Reader Comments (12)

Maybe I stand alone here, though I am sure that I don't... but I think it is an absolutely crime that the music we have all collected is not ours to own just because they are digital. I for one hold music as my most valued possessions, over my car, over my computer, over my clothing! I'd like to know that the collection of some 600+ GBs of music that I've collected is actually mine.

And while ownership won't change the fact that I can still listen to the music, it does change the fact that if my house was to burn down, I wouldn't see a dime reimbursed for my music collection that Ive spent thousands on, just because i didn't 'own' the digital music.

December 30 | Registered CommenterJonathan Ostrow

While "ownership" is a strange concept, that I'm sure many people have already written about, the points brought up in this article are one reason why I just don't buy digital media files. If I want to lend music, a book, or a movie to a friend, I should be able to, easily and without fear. I still buy CD's and DVDs. If I want to listen to or watch them on a computer or iPod, I rip them myself. That way I have a physical object for the money I spent and I get to decide how I consume the media as well.

December 30 | Unregistered Commentermattack

But Jonathan, you never "owned" the music on your CDs or vinyl records either.

If your house burned down in the analogue era you were reimbursed for the discs you owned - just as you would be today for the drives you own - but you were never able to claim for the music on them.

December 30 | Unregistered Commenterfelix

This reminds me of some of the points made in this article:

"If the band plans to include 10 songs on this album, they could sell non-controlling ownership, songwriting rights, mechanical rights, etc. equivalent to 49% interest in each song."

"In addition to the financial motivation, fans and friends now feel emotionally invested in the success of the artist. They have the pride of ownership."

Ownership is a strong feeling. It's a big part of why people buy houses instead of renting or buy books instead of going to the library. Having ownership of a track enhances its value. It makes a fan/investor feel like they contributed.

Otherwise, for many, the difference between renting and owning music doesn't matter because the end result is the same: the ability to listen to the song.

December 30 | Unregistered CommenterWes

This isn't a plug, I was just surprised when I came across it - but More Than offer digital insurance as standard, £2500 on digital property.

It won't cover a large collection, and if you're a photographer then it certainly wouldn't cover a large professional portfolio... but it's a good start and a good attitude I think.

December 31 | Unregistered CommenterJohn

The idea of insurance on digital property is interesting. Because is it saying if your computer is stolen you get an extra bit of cash or if the data is stolen (but you still have copies of the data) that you can somehow be compensated?

But here's a question related to that. If you have digitized your CD collection & your laptop makes it out of the fire, but your CD collection doesn't; should the insurance company pay you for the CDs or do you still own the music?

December 31 | Unregistered CommenterBrian John Mitchell

you own: the vinyl, disc jacket, the cd and case, the tape and case, the ipod or mp3 player, however all the music on those formats is licensed via mechanical licenses.

~ CrowfeatheR

January 1 | Unregistered CommenterCrowfeatheR

This has never bothered me, because media is basically consumable. It's like buying a ticket to a show. I read a book or watch a movie once. I'm lucky to get three spins out of a track, but the very best stuff gets played multiple times over the course of a year or two. Maybe I won't be able to access my iTunes or Kindle purchases in 10 years, but that content will still be out there, and I bet I'll be able to get it for free, legally.

Maybe I technically don't own that stuff, but it feels like it. My old iTunes purchases are still on my hard drive, just taking up space. My old Kindle notes and highlights are online, and I can pull the books over to my iPad, iPhone, either of my Kindles, or any of my computers, anytime, simultaneously. You can't do that with a real book! Now you can even loan your Kindle books (if the publisher grants that right), once for 14 days. Personally, I think that's too generous.

signed, all-digital and loving it. ;)

January 2 | Registered CommenterBrian Hazard

To me, it's mind-blowing that people are still confused about what they buy when they buy music: they buy a set of rights. It's just like when you by a PC; you don't own the technology that Intel and others built into it, you have a set of rights to use it and, yes, resell it in the form in which you acquired it, but you sure has hell don't own the IP (intellectual property) that makes it work.

January 2 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Shattuck

"So, fans can’t resell music downloads on eBay or Amazon – it’s not allowed. Nor can they try to sell an iPod that’s full of songs that they bought. That’s illegal!"
"but you sure as hell don't own the IP (intellectual property) that makes it work."

Yes I don't have the right to sell illegal copies. But the rights I payed for are mine including digital ones.

If I buy a vinyl record or CD, I own the right to resell it on Ebay.
I even have the right to make a safety copy (on cassette/cd or harddrive).
What if I don't delete the safety copy?

If I buy the rights to a download, I own the rights to listen to it and make a safety copy.
And now I don't have the right to resell it. Funny.

What if I buy a CD and sell it to a friend for $1.-
He now owns it and is allowed to make a safety copy.
After a week he sells it back to me, because he doesn't like it.
And forgets to delete the safety copy.

Is this illegal?

So the fact that a digital recording (download) is considered different to an analog recording is somehow strange to me.
And if I buy (and payed for) a digital/analog copy I must allways have the right to resell it.

What do you say?

January 2 | Registered CommenterHarry D

Actually we don't own anything....we just use something for the length of our life. :-)

January 3 | Unregistered CommenterSergio

Whilst the above are correct that you don't own the music on vinyl and cd' you do the own the vinyl and cd containing it..which means what?

Bottom line is, you may as well own the music on vinyl and can sell your vinyls and cd's and they are covered by insurance..

Digital music is worthless crap.

August 12 | Unregistered CommenterNowecant

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