Monday, May 13, 2013

Digital Music Resale—around the corner or a pipe dream?

You have a right to do this to your music. Right? (From Flikr)

First sale

Today, I want to talk a little about digital music resale. In order to do that, we have to talk about the legal doctrine of first sale, which basically states that once someone has purchased a copyrighted object, be it a toaster, book, or CD, etc, they can do whatever they want with it. Resell it, lend it, trash it, give it away. First sale makes libraries possible—without it, they would have nothing to lend. Or awesome library end-of the-year library clearance sales. First sale has been upheld time and time again in the courts.

But digital music presents a problem for first sale. It isn't really a material object, which is what first sale was designed for. Copying is more complicated, too—who holds the "copy," the producer or the consumer? Can you even tell the copy apart from the original?

Problems with digital resale

Despite the many advantages of digital music (like storage and portability), the murkiness of digital music rights management (and the terms of sales that you usually skip past when you purchase) doesn't allow libraries to legally buy or lend digital music downloads. And yet, lots of important music is only released digitally. This is bad for two reasons: 1) access—libraries cannot make this music available to its patrons, and 2) preservation—with the quick rate of technology
obsolescence, or when technology no longer works because of hardware or software incompatibility (like the VHS tapes you no longer have a way to play), who knows how long it will be before the digital music released today is no longer readable? Music labels and artists have long been known to be bad preservers of their own material.

Of course, music is not the only platform that digital resale affects. This is also an important issue for the e-book and computer game industries. This videoblog post from last August discusses some possibilities for the future of computer game digital resale, which they claim is inevitable.

ReDigi to the rescue

The company ReDigi formed to try and solve the digital music resale conundrum. They developed software that they claim allows people to resell their MP3s by ensuring than the seller's copy has been wiped off their hard drive. I assume this technology could eventually be redesigned to let libraries lend their digital copies, also. While this resale is technically against most music's user agreements, it was a battle ReDigi was willing to fight.

Unsurprisingly, ReDigi was quickly sued by Capitol Records, who were not happy with this whole digital resale idea. They'd rather be in complete control of everything they produce. The court sided with Capitol Records, but in a strange way. They claimed that you could legally resell your MP3s—but only if you sold the physical object into which the music was downloaded, i.e. your hard drive (you can read more about the court case here). Who would do that? While they lost the case, ReDigi has redesigned their software so they think it is compliant with the ruling—and are appealing.

Do you think digital resale is inevitable? If so, how do you think it might happen?

Vocab: first sale, obsolescence, digital music, MP3

1 comment:

  1. Here's another article with more details about the ReDigi case: