Angry Metal LisaRecently Steel Druhm outlined with some bittersweet memories the evolution of the music industry away from the prized formats of the CD and the LP (and cassette – but let’s not kid ourselves, liking cassettes is basically just proof that you’re trve ’cause you’re using the shittiest technology possible). But one of the things he didn’t touch on was the societal implications of the process he was talking about. Now I understand that this is a metal blog and that if I wanted to start AngrySociologyGuy.com I am free to do so; but bear with me, because I don’t feel like starting a new blog just to hash through the concept of ownership.

The development of the protection of Intellectual Property in its current form is arguably in the process of changing how we think about ownership. With time and consumerism we have seen a sharp uptick in things that we don’t expect to own for long periods of time – such as chairs or tables, which people who have the money switch out willy nilly, as suggested by IKEA. But one thing that we have continued to do is amass media collections: LPs, Cassettes, CDs, DVDs, VHS, and so forth. All of these things are protected by intellectual property rights. It is not the tape itself which is protected – but the intellectual property on it. But this was of little consequence because it was difficult to break copyright law. Instead, artists spent their time complaining about the selling of used CDs – which they called theft – because they didn’t get royalties on them.

But that raises an interesting question: Are you allowed to sell the mp3s that you’ve purchased from iTunes? Well, Redigi says you can. But they’re also being sued and the judge thinks they’re going to lose eventually. How about inheritance? If I amass LPs, CDs, or hell, even cassettes – I can give these as inheritance to my descendants. My children can be stuck forever with my special edition of Rhapsody of Fire‘s The Frozen Chaotic Tears of Infinite Angels, and who knows, sell it some day to pay for the psychological treatment they’ll need. And if I amass a whole bunch of books, those tomes on slaying dragons, wandering through dungeons, or sucking the blood of the innocent while feeling bad about it, can all be passed on. But if I amass 19,000 tracks via iTunes? Not a single one of those can be passed on, due to a non-transferrable license. If I purchase 1984 on Kindle – the company has the right to delete it.

Combine this with another thing: up until now we rarely broke copyright laws. Sure, technically, if I were to copy to an LP to a tape and give it to a friend I was in contravention of copyright law. But, of course, this did no rights holder harm and the copies were poor anyway (’cause cassettes suck). The only time copyright law was ever considered to be at risk was if a bootlegger made copies en masse and sold them. With the digitization of media, it is suddenly became possible for Joe Metalhead to rip the new Mayhem record and release it online. Suddenly 1-to-1 trading was fast, easy, bordering on anonymous and in near-perfect quality. With the invention of BitTorrent and the dawn of widely available broadband, this was taken to new levels. Not because we all suddenly became a bunch of thieves, but because we could. The technology was there and we began interacting with the world differently.

The response has therefore been to tighten the copyright reins. Instead of figuring out how to compete with this, licensing has been made even more convoluted, difficult to get through and while intellectual property is now available online for purchase – it is instead just a license. We don’t own iTunes tracks; we rent them. Sure, we rent them for our whole lives (or until the iTunes store shuts down…) and then it expires, but there are other consequences of this. For example: I share a computer with Angry Metal Girlfriend. She and I have different profiles on that computer, and those files are not available to us on both sides. If I had LPs or CDs, Angry Metal Girlfriend could go pull out my copy of whatever and play it. Technically, because of individualized purchasing and ownership, she has to own a copy of something in order to legally listen to it. Another example? Mass Effect 3 multiplayer gives you 1 online pass. So if two people want to play multiplayer in the same house – say for example that they purchased the game together – they both need to pay unless they are using the same profile (and thereby saving over each other’s games).

So three things are happening simultaneously: first, we have access to more than we’ve ever had access to before (both legally and not), but ownership is changing and it’s essentially becoming individualized licensing. My girlfriend and I need separate Spotify accounts. We need separate XBox Live accounts and separate Apple IDs. Who is this good for? Does this improve the user experience? Maybe in some ways, but generally it seems to me like it’s really good for owners of content and producers of content who are protected by law. But I’m not sure that it’s very good for consumers – who accrue nothing of value in the process of purchasing these licenses and have nothing to show for it when they’re done. My CD collection was essentially self-perpetuating after a while. I used to buy new CDs (and some used CDs) and sell old ones that I didn’t like or didn’t want anymore. Often times the reason I could buy 15 or 20 CDs a month is because I was selling a ton and therefore funding the process. Now, if I purchase mp3s, a NetFlix membership, a Spotify membership or something of the sort, I’m throwing that money down a well. I’m paying rent instead of a mortgage.

What are the possible side-effects of a change in ownership? How is this going to change how we own other things? How is this going to affect our acquisition of wealth or even what we are willing to accept in terms of ownership in the future? These are academic questions, certainly, but the more power we give to these interests and the more we legislate in their favor to protect their business model, the more we change the face of ownership. Are these changes good for anyone who doesn’t own a copyright? Should we be legislating for the purpose of protecting someone’s business model?

Share →
  • This is why I won’t pay for digital content. I don’t believe in pirating it either — I don’t have anything that’s been downloaded illegally — but I don’t see it as an actual product that I am willing to spend money to purchase. I’ll buy CDs (and I do, as often as I’m able), but if it isn’t free to download (or if I don’t get a promo copy from a publicist or label), I won’t bother with it.

  • L Roy

    I had this conversation with a friend recently (after reading about Bruce Willis suing Apple for the right to leave his kids his digital media collection in his will). A point that was raised was that in some countries you are able to purchase a house, but technically never own the land on which it is built. That land is leased from the government (99 years in the colonial world, 40 years in China so I’m led to believe), for a one off fixed cost over the life of that leasing period.

    Unless the government suddenly needs that land back at the end of your contracted lease (ie, they want to demolish a suburb and build a stadium), the lease simply rolls over by default for another period, generally paid by way of local taxes, without of course having to purchase the house twice. Furthermore, the estate your children will inherit will include the terms of this lease – which they can then roll again at its expiry.

    Given iTunes will never require the return of digital media like a government may require land, I fail to see why 1. our digital licenses can’t also be rolled over at the end of a predetermined lease period, and 2. our children could not inherit said library and again roll over the license without having to purchase the ‘house’ again…

    • [not a Dr]

      I have heard there is an increasing trend, where you write your list of accounts and passwords and leave them sealed with your will.
      That is a usable workaround for leaving your digital “purchases” to your inheritors, but still with the inconvenience of not being able to access them through their own accounts.

  • funeraldoombuggy

    I don’t use itunes (and hopefully never will) but when I buy music (downloads) through amazon, band camp or cdbaby the file is mine and I can copy it as many times Id like and multiple users on my compture can use it…. is this not the case with itunes? I guess when I pass away my boy can have my digital music library, not seeing what the issue is here.

    I like reading your opinion Mr AngryMetalGuy even if I don’t agree 100%. When I buy a downloaded album I don’t look at it as “money down a well” a band/label has something for sale and I want it so I pay for it, they get the $ (hopefully a good amount trickles back to the band) and I get the product that brings me joy (even if the music is depressing).

    • Kalsten

      Yep, I also don’t agree with the throwing the money away in a well. To me, I am not paying for a piece of plastic with a nice cover. I am paying for the music, and the feels that it produces on me. By convenience, I listen to a lot of music on my mobile through Spotify as I travel a lot, and I don’t feel like I am wasting money at all.

  • Actually, I’m thinking about registering it. I think it would be a fun blog to write.

    • [not a Dr]

      angryguy.com would be generic enough to write whatever you want.

  • I never use ITunes. I buy from Bandcamp or other lossless sources when available, or if buying MP3 7Digital, Play and if I’m really stuck – Amazon. I’ve got everything backed up on my PC, an external drive and Gmusic – plus my Cowon media player.

    Half my collection is on CD, the rest digital download. I think I’m fairly well protected from losing it all. And there’s no DRM, no nonsense to stop me passing the files on when I snuff it. Should anyone be sad enough to want my noisy music collection.

    Digital downloads can seem ephemeral and almost without value. But I treat them as if they were as valuable as a physical object.

  • I might sometimes download music not completely legally. But I don’t really see the bad point here. There are many bands I discovered by doing so, of which I now got (multiple) original CD’s.
    By the way, I’d like to quote a part of the back of “The Wretched Sun” by “Iron Thrones”: “This album is yours, you can rip it, burn it, share it, and enjoy it however you’d like. ©Iron Thrones”

    About the digital heritance. Everyone may copy my external harddisk.

    Btw, how does the copyright work with ripped CD’s and music formats? I mean, do they have to copyright the music as FLAC, as .mp3, as wma and all other formats? How can they prove the one song you got in a certain format is the format they have copyrights on? If that doesn’t make any difference, you may ask what the actual thing is they got copyrights on: Not the CD itself, not the songs in a certain format, what is it then? That would be pretty abstract.

    Nice article! It makes me think.

  • Kalsten

    Interesting topic. For me, the digital purchase/renting of goods has a great advantage: I am currently living in Denmark, but I am from a country with better good, nicer weather and warmer people. I know I will move from DK maybe next year, so I don’t want to amass a ton of physical weight for the time of moving away. Therefore, I read most of my books in my Kindle, I listen to all my music through Spotify or Bandcamp, and and I play all my games in Steam or similar services. However, I know very well that the I don’t really own any of my digital goods, but I am in a sort of “renting” dearlership with the providers, being Spotify, Netflix or Steam. And I am OK with that, really.

    However, you made a point about selling your digital mp3. When you sell an original CD, DVD, blu-ray or book, you are not having it anymore. However, you can do infinite copies of an mp3 with almost no cost, therefore you are selling a good that you don’t really lose in the process. Therefore, I don’t really see the point on selling your “used mp3”. You can just copy them and send them for free, so I don’t really understand a second hand mp3 market, if something like that could be possible.

    • Not if you’re operating within the boundaries of licensing. That’s my point. You lose the license to that music. It disappears from your system and iTunes could even basically disable it from a DRM perspective. I agree with you that it’s difficult in principle to enforce, but it’s also stupid that I’m renting someone’s music for the price of a physical product and can do nothing with it should I not like it.

      • Carlos Marrickvillian

        I agree totally and no longer purchase anything from I Tunes.