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A History of Downloading Music: What Do You Own?

By Danny Davids(13,494) Danny Davids

Posted Friday, April 04, 2008
View All Blog Posts submitted by Danny Davids

A co-worker approached me last week concerning her daughter's MP3 player.  During our discourse she brought up an interesting question:  When I buy a CD or pay for a music download, what do I get?  The answer may surprise you.

Even back in the days of vinyl (if you don't know what that is, kids, go ask Grandpa and Grandma), when you bought that album or 45, you weren't buying the song itself.  You were buying a license to own that copy of the song.  That didn't change when we graduated from vinyl to 8-tracks, to cassettes, to CDs, and then finally to downloadable music.  No matter what the format, whatever you buy you don't own.  You license it.  SImple, right?  Only until you need another copy.  Or until you want to play "your" song on more than one device.

If you bought an album and it broke, or got scratched, or became warped because some idiot left it in the sun, your only recourse was to buy another album, which meant you now owned two licenses to the music on the album, even if you only had one album to play.  Your problem, not the recording industry's.  With the advent of cassette, however, people found they had a convenient way to copy their audio files to tape.  Then they could play their music from cassette and never have to touch the original vinyl.  If the cassette tape broke or got warped, no problem, just go back to the vinyl and make another copy.

It made it easy to play your music without damaging your original.  It also made the music much more mobile.  It's easier to carry a cassette tape from your home to your friend's party, and definitely easier to play a cassette in your car's stereo than playing a vinyl album (never ever saw a vinyl player in a car stereo!).  As a result, people got the brilliant idea to make multiple copies of that album so you could keep one at home, and one in the car, and one at work.

That's when the recording industry started getting worried.  See, if you make a copy for yourself, that's fine.  It's when you make a copy for your buddy so he doesn't have to buy the album that problems arise (for the recording industry).  Every copy you make to give to a friend means one less copy of the album sold, and that much less income for the industry.  However, since the primary means of distribution of these "pirated" copies was physical, the odds that somebody was making multiple copies of an album and selling it at a flea market or via mail-order was very small.  Still, the industry decided it was time to start making an issue of the situation.  After all, doing this was a violation of the license the consumer agreed to purchase.  The lawsuits were few and far between, as not many people decided to make their fortune selling bootleg copies of the latest Eagles album.

Then came CDs, digital reproduction, portable music players, and the Internet.  With CD-burning software and CD-ROM drives now standard on most computer systems, copying music is easier than ever.  Thanks to the digital music format, the quality of reproduction is fantastic.  With MP3 and other audio-format players being so affordable, many people have more than one.  And thanks to peer-to-peer (P2P) networks, copies of songs were flying out over the Internet at unbelievable rates.  It was so easy to find the song you wanted for free that it was a waste of time (and money) to try buying it!

The recording industry realized their profits were flying out the window because of this new technology.  So they reiterated their rules about licensing to the general public and increased their lawsuits against those that violated those licensing rules.  And they started enforcing some new rules as well, ones that didn't set well with the general public, and ones that folks may not even be aware of.

For instance, do you have a stereo with a CD player at home, and a computer, and an iPod?  Guess what?  You need to purchase one copy of the song for each device you want to play it on.  Seriously.  When you buy a license, you can only use that license on one device at a time.  If you want to play a song on another device, you have to remove it from the device it's on first--OR you buy another license so you can play it on both devices at the same time.  The industry also started including DRM, or digital rights management, on CDs and videos.  It's a security measure that is supposed to prevent the illegal copying of intellectual property of any type by using encryption or what's called a "digital watermark".  Even when you pay for downloaded music, some sites use DRM or other methods to prevent you from making multiple copies of what you've downloaded to distribute among your music devices.  It costs extra to obtain the non-DRM versions of the same song--but if you make copies, you're still violating your license.  (So why are you paying extra??)

Unfortunately, the rules the recording industry enforces are the ones that benefit their profit margin.  There are many questions that haven't been answered to my satisfaction.  For instance, if I own an album, I already own a license for every song on the album.  If I can't play the album any longer because I don't have a turntable, what's the problem with downloading the songs off a P2P network?  I still own the original license.  Or what about when I purchase a DVD?  I license that work when I purchase it.  Does that include licenses for each individual song on the movie's soundtrack?  If so, again, why can't I download those songs for free since I own the original license and want to listen to them on another device?  It's not like I'm watching the DVD and playing the song on my MP3 player at the same time.  I doubt questions like this will be answered any time soon, and when they are, it'll be the consumer getting the short end of the stick.

If you couldn't understand why you can't download music for free off the Internet, or why people keep getting dragged into court over copyright violations, hopefully this article has explained a little of the why.  Whether that affects your current music-obtaining practices is another thing altogether.  But at least you know what you're getting into.

This Blog Post has been read 299 times.
Posted to ProBlogs.com on Friday, April 04, 2008
View other posts by Danny Davids

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