As Bruce Willis has reportedly discovered, your ebooks and i-tunes last as long as you do and essentially no longer.
Bruce Willis, the movie star, may or may not be amazed that he’s not allowed to bequeath his Apple iTunes music collection to his children. A Daily Mail story alleging this has apparently been disowned by the actor’s wife.
Whether the story is true or not, it nonetheless highlights one of the largely unspoken – and outrageous – realities of the digital age: ownership is disappearing.
Publishers of books, music and movies have always wanted a world in which consumers of these media must pay again and again for the privilege. And as content moves into digital formats, the entertainment is moving within legal if not technical reach of that goal.
The Mail’s story quotes a lawyer making a key point:
Lots of people will be surprised on learning all those tracks and books they have bought over the years don’t actually belong to them. It’s only natural you would want to pass them on to a loved one.
Natural, maybe, but a violation of the onerous terms and conditions that Apple, Amazon and the other “sellers” of digital content impose on their customers. Despite promotional language – in giant letters – with the words “buy” and “purchase”, you are only buying a license to use the material yourself, and legally that’s all. So, who inherits your library, under today’s system? Nobody, and that’s just wrong.
Now, Willis can easily ensure that his MP3s will be usable by his children. All he has to do is move the files onto an external hard disk and hand it to one of them, which he could do with a CD or vinyl-record collection. I would stress one of his daughters, because even though I consider current copyright laws an abomination, I also believe that transferring the material to more than one person would violate the spirit of copyright.
If you think Apple’s MP3 terms of service are bad (they are), they’re no worse than Amazon’s, which also pretends to sell music. In fact, you’re only renting it. (As the holder of a small number of Amazon shares, I’m dismayed by the company’s kowtowing to corporate interests this way, but understand that it, like Apple, has little choice given the entertainment giants’ clout.)
There’s no indication in the Mail story that Willis wants the same transfer rights for any movies he’s downloaded and stored in his iTunes archive. Most likely, he owns the DVDs and/or Blue-Ray disks and would just hand them over. Perhaps he’s fine with the digital rights management (DRM) that – though laughably easy to break – prevents re-use of movies and TV shows in the same way that unprotected music, which is now the norm, easily allows.
Not all publishers put DRM or huge restrictions on their material. I’d encourage people to buy from them whenever possible, and encourage the right thing by voting with your wallet.
The situation with books is just as bad as with videos. Amazon, through its overwhelming Kindle ebook market share, puts huge restrictions on what you can do with what you’ve downloaded. And because the major book publishers have insisted on pricing that amounts to a swindle, given the fact that you can’t resell or even give away a Kindle title, buying books from major publishers for the Kindle is plain idiotic. A court case is likely to change this equation, but the bottom line with the Kindle is simple: the books last as long as you do and essentially no longer, unless someone takes over your personal Amazon account.
In a way, Willis is fighting the last war. The entertainment industry is rapidly steering us all toward a stream-from-the-cloud model, in which we buy the right to watch or listen or read, but where the rights are limited in time and device. This pay-per-view world would make even Willis’s dilemma moot, because he’d never own anything – which makes it the most dangerous model of all for users of digital content. I use some cloud services, but I buy and back up (legally or not) the things I want to keep.
Since the publishers, record labels and movie studios are unlikely to permit sanity in the digital marketplace, and given lawmakers’ propensity for following the industry’s dictates in passing increasingly draconian copyright laws, it’s up to the rest of us to come up with solutions. Music, as noted, is relatively easy though technically not allowed – and you can be sure that the entertainment magnates are working on ways to thwart even family hand-me-downs. Using software such as the brilliant Handbrake, meanwhile, it’s relatively simple to convert DVDs and remove the DRM for backup purposes, or whatever else you might consider appropriate. Even Kindle and other e-formatted books can be made more user-friendly, though as far as I can tell, this is less simple.
Note that I am not suggesting that you post your music or videos online for just anyone to download. I believe in copyright as a principle, but I believe even more that we should have at least the right to back up and transfer what we’ve paid for.
One of the more innovative fixes I’ve heard of is to create a legal entity that buys the music/movie/book licenses, and then to put that entity under the control of your heirs. If this was easy and inexpensive, it would make at least some sense. But one guesses that the entertainment industry would either quickly find a way to stop this – probably by forcing Apple, Amazon et al to change license terms – or promote new legislation banning the practice.
The greatest hypocrisy of the publishers and their allies in this situation is their insistence that “intellectual property” is the same as physical property, which is a lie. They create vast rights for themselves, and then they ensure that buyers have no property rights whatever when it comes to the items they’ve purchased in turn. When I buy a physical CD or book or DVD, I can sell it or give it away – pass along the container with its content.
To disallow this in the digital age is the industry’s greatest desire – and a gigantic screw-you to its customers.
* This article has been updated from an earlier version in light of the comments made by Bruce Willis’s wife regarding the original Daily Mail story
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010