Here’s a question: When you buy digital media, what are you actually getting for your money?
Actual ownership over a copy of the media — a la analog media purchases — or just permission to watch/read/listen to something whenever you want? That’s the question at the heart of a lawsuit about digital music files, but is it a question that everyone already knows the answer to?
Capitol Records is suing a company called ReDigi over possible “copyright infringement, contributory copyright infringement, vicarious copyright infringement, and inducement of copyright infringement under the United States Copyright Act, as well as common law copyright infringement under the law of the State of New York,” because of what Capitol’s lawyers are calling ReDigi’s “willful and systematic infringement of [Capitol’s] sound recordings.”
What could ReDigi be doing that’s so harmful to Capitol’s copyright, you may ask? Well, it’s suggesting that digital media can — and, with ReDigi’s help, will — be resold, in the same way that old books, CDs and DVDs can be resold. According to Capitol and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), that’s not even vaguely legal.
The key to the the lawsuit seems to hinge in the process through which ReDigi “sells” the digital files. Once signed up to the ReDigi system, users can select files on their computer to sell, which are then uploaded to the ReDigi marketplace and deleted from the users’ computers.
According to Capitol’s lawsuit, this makes the company “a clearinghouse for copyright infringement and a business model built on widespread, unauthorized copying of sound recordings owned by [Capitol] and others.” The RIAA, which sent a cease-and-desist letter to ReDigi ahead of the Capitol lawsuit, agrees, writing that “even if ReDigi’s software and system works as described by ReDigi (i.e. that it deletes the original copy before it makes the sale), ReDigi would still be liable for copyright infringement.”
In response, ReDigi has filed for the dismissal of the lawsuit, claiming that the objected-to copying of the files is protected by Section 117 of the U.S. Copyright Act, which protects copying of computer files by the owner of said files as an essential step in their use. ReDigi is also pursuing the awarding of “attorneys’ fees, costs, disbursements, and such other and further relief as to the Court seems proper.” Capitol, in comparison, is seeking $150,000 for each illegally downloaded file. As the lawyers circle and prepare for the legal battle to come, however, it’s worth considering: Where do regular users fall in this whole affair?
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The idea of digital media having resale value seems like an odd novelty to me, I have to admit. And it’s not because I doubt that people would want to get some money back for their MP3s of, say, *NSYNC’s No Strings Attached after 10 years of the embarrassing realization of having bought the thing in the first place — everyone knows that Celebrity is the only *NSYNC album worth owning, after all. It’s because I suspect that most people consider digital media as more of an ephemeral concept (“I am buying the experience”) than an actual object that could be transferred, as opposed to simply deleted once it’s outlived its usefulness.
Take iTunes purchases, for example. Those are licensed for a limited number of devices, and as the Terms and Conditions of iTunes state, purchase or rental means agreement that “the iTunes Service and certain iTunes Products include security technology that limits your use of iTunes Products and that, whether or not iTunes Products are limited by security technology, you shall use iTunes Products in compliance with the applicable usage rules established by Apple and its licensors (‘Usage Rules’), and that any other use of the iTunes Products may constitute a copyright infringement.”
Or Amazon’s MP3 Music Terms of Sale, which explicitly state that you “are not granted any synchronization, public performance, promotional use, commercial sale, resale, reproduction or distribution rights” for what you’ve bought. Amazon also makes this particularly clear: “You do not acquire any ownership rights in the Software or Digital Content as a result of downloading Software or Digital Content.” So that thing you just bought? You don’t actually own it.
So what, in the end, are you buying when you pay money for digital media? Performance rights, it seems, and little else. That ultimately may be more or less the same as what you were buying before: It’s not as if buying a vinyl album gave you the right to transmit said album, and we’ve already had lawsuits about whether ownership of a DVD gives you the right to stream its content online, after all (spoiler: It doesn’t). But without the ability to easily hold in your hand (and resell) the vehicle said performance is contained in, it feels like much, much less.
Graeme McMillan is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @Graemem or on Facebook at Facebook/Graeme.McMillan. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.