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You Don't Own the Digital Music You Bought & Reselling it is Illegal

A new court case is a good reminder that even if you spent thousands building an iTunes library you don't actually own any of that music.
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Legal jargon is designed to be so boring that you don't even bother reading it, and that's how they get you. No one gets further than two sentences into their iPhone terms of service before slipping into a coma, and many an artist glossed over confusing jargon about "mechanical royalties" in their deal not realizing they were signing away millions to the label. 

So I don't blame you if the U.S. District Court, Capitol Records vs. ReDigi Inc. (No. 12 Civ. 95 RJS) ruling of 2013 didn't quite grab your attention, but if you strip away all the legal Ambien, it's a decision that affects the life of everyone reading this, and now that there's been a new development in the case, I wanted to bring it back up. You don't actually "own" the music you buy digitally and it's illegal to resell it. There, now do I have your attention? 

  • ReDigi launches as a marketplace for people to re-sell movies and music they purchased digitally. 
  • Capitol Records, and by extension the wider music industry, are pissed. Music's being sold and they're not cutting a cut - that's totally not cool guys. 
  • ReDigi argues that the "first sale" doctrine should apply to digital works as well. You can re-sell a DVD you buy, you can re-sell a CD you buy, you can re-sell vinyl you buy, why can't you resell a MP3 (or M4A file) you buy? 
  • The judge rules in favor of Capitol Records, writing that while a CD, for example, is a single, fixed physical object, a MP3 could conceivably be copied again an infinite amount of times, so no, you can't re-sell it. A CD is a "material object" while a digital file is a "reproduction" because you could sell an MP3 and still retain your "copy" of that same MP3. 
  • ReDigi's position has been backed by Google, Amazon and more who see potential in a digital re-sale marketplace, and after all these years ReDigi has finally successfully appealed the case to a higher court. We'll see what that court says...

There's a lot of interesting implications here, and there's really no right or wrong side as far as artists are concerned. ReDigi, Google and Amazon are really just giant companies trying to make money fighting against other giant companies trying to make money. 

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But as far as you, the average music consumer, are concerned, the takeaway here is that you don't "own" the music you bought on iTunes in the way you probably think you do. It might be more accurate to think of it as a "lease." 

Let's say you've got thousands of songs in your iTunes that you paid for with your money. Your friend Nathan's been looking to get into Young Thug but doesn't have the time to amass a collection, you've got an awesome Thugger collection, he's down to buy them from you. Like a digital version of putting out CDs on your lawn for a yard sale, you zip them up, Nathan hands you $10, and boom, congratulations, you've just completed an illegal transaction. 

Or to get deeper, you might spend years and thousands of dollars building an awesome iTunes catalog and like any good music connoisseur you want to leave that music to your children in your will. Nope. Not even record labels are evil enough to block someone passing along music to their children, but legally they could "seize" all that music back since it's not transferable property in that sense. 

All of this is going to be a moot point soon as even downloading stops and the vast majority of people only stream music, in which case they definitely don't "own" the music they listen to, they're not even really "leasing" it, only renting it.

Welcome to the digital age, where even the things you think you own turn out to just be so many lines of code slipping through your fingers. 

By Nathan S, the managing editor of DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter. Image via Instagram.

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