Till Death Do iTunes Part

We used to live in a world where you could take your hard-earned cash to the corner grocer, or mall, or local Wal-Mart, and exchange it for Stuff. Stuff you could have and hold and love and play with. Stuff you could clutter your home with or fill up land fills with. Stuff you could give away or sell, or bequeath to your favorite niece. If you really wanted, your kin could throw that junk in your coffin so you could take it with you when you meet the great spaghetti monster in the sky.

Okay, it’s mostly still that world, but as we fall farther down the virtual rabbit hole, lines of ownership and possession blur. A British mag recently spun a tale that Bruce Willis was set to sue iTunes over ownership of his digital music collection, in order to ensure its inheritability. The fable has been disclaimed by the Willis family, but it left people wondering, What about my tunes?

Your tunes? YOUR tunes? All tunes are iTunes! Like the Red Queen in Wonderland, iTunes holds court over all the songs and videos you’ve downloaded that traverse your ear canal. Your use of the tunes is at the courtesy and mercy of Apple.

But wait! you say, I paid for that!

Sure, but what did you pay for? I’ll spare you the fine print and spoil the ending. You bought a license. You’ve agreed to borrow the song for a fee. You have revocable permission from Apple to listen to songs for a limited amount of time from specified devices.

And neither is Apple the ultimate owner of the song you’re listening to. The copyright holder is, usually a record label. At least one court has weighed in on this topic, ruling that the agreement between iTunes and the record labels from which available songs are obtained amounts to a license. Ownership has not been transferred. Thus, you cannot get from iTunes that which it does not have to give. (Interestingly, artists generally obtain more dough from licensing agreements than sales. You can imagine how many contracts were rewritten after that court opinion was issued.)

Well this makes sense, right? When I bought that Cyndi Lauper casette tape from a yard sale down the block I didn’t get the rights to the songs to do with as I pleased (no matter how many mix tapes I made). I got the ability to listen to them whenever I wanted. But I also had the ability to resell or gift the music away, encapsulated as it was in that little plastic shell. I can’t do that with my iTunes exclusives without some effort. I can drag a file into a play list, and I can rip a CD, but that’s not really the same, is it? Also burning enough CDs to have an audible library negates an aspect of the convenience of digital music if I really am thinking of inheritance, which is not an allowable use according to the Terms.

Ownership and possession are different animals—think of renting an apartment or leasing a car. You have the right to use the Stuff, but ultimately you have to give it back.  You possess but do not own. Your kids can’t move in to your old apartment after you die–once you expire so does the lease. This is the way it works with your iTunes songs.

Something once tangible has become intangible, but our perception of the same has been plastic. It’s no wonder the Bruce Willis yarn sparked such interest; a person’s relationship with their music is personal and emotional. And we used to be able to hold it in our hands via some conduit–8-track, record, casette, CD. The conduit is gone, and we now realize how tenuous our grasp really was. Bye Bye Miss American Pie.

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