Who owns your digital content?

If you thought you own the books on your Kindle or the music on your iPod, think again. The truth is, you don't own any of the content on your device nor the right to transfer the files to another person. Not even as an inheritance.

The story so far has Bruce Willis at loggerheads with Apple over the right to pass on his vast digital music collection when Bruce takes on an action hero role in heaven.

The epic has gone viral and appears to have been a rumour that got out of control.

Charles Arthur writing on The Guardian goes so far as to suggest

  • So now let the search begin for the origin of this. There's an article from Marketwatch which bears an odd resemblance - but it has no mention of legal challenge. It's all talk about Estates and Wills.
  • Which brings us to a horrible pause: might it be that someone saw a mention of "Estates and Wills" and thought it was "estates and Willis"?
  • The origin of this story may be lost on the web, but the story has spectacularly highlighted a key problem with how companies are "selling" digital media over the network.

In the Marketwatch article Evan Carroll, co-author of "Your Digital Afterlife" states

  • I find it hard to imagine a situation where a family would be OK with losing a collection of 10,000 books and songs
  • Legally dividing one account among several heirs would also be extremely difficult

The truth

The average person may be shocked to learn that you pay companies like Apple and Amazon.com to license digital content - you do not get to own the digital files.

What this means is that you pay to use the digital media files and do not own the right to transfer the files to another person, even as an inheritance.

Amazon's quite clear with this point in its terms of use. It states "you do not acquire any ownership rights in the software or music content”.

Apple’s legal loophole

Apple's terms of use for digital media is limited to Apple devices that are used by the account holder.

Definitions of what constitutes an ‘account holder’ are vague at best and aren’t really explained by either Amazon and Apple. At best guess, the ‘account holder’ is the person that can currently login to the account.

Does this mean that if someone hacks into the account and take it over, they become the account holder and the previous owner loses the right to access the account? It could take some time and involve substantial cost to prove ownership of an account that is setup with vague details.

What about inheritance or the transfer of an account through the sale of its details?

Online suppliers of digital media limit access to content and restrict the trade in digital media to maximise the profits through its sale. This means that if a family wants to listen to one song on all of their devices, they will all have to but it separately.

An argument against digital media

Until companies that provide digital media can justify the practice of restricting transfer of ownership and transfer for use onto multiple devices, there’s still an argument for sticking with physical media such as DVDs, CDs and books.

However, this argument ignores the practicality and widespread adoption of digital media.

Take for instance the e-book. The introduction of the Kindle and iPad have brought about an explosion in e-book sales and has also reduced the sales of physical books.

As with most things digital today, it is recommended that consumers look for digital media suppliers that have flexible policies and utilise generic digital media formats like the mp3 music file format so that transferring the digital media is not impossible without resorting to breaking a licensing agreement.

As for Bruce Willis, he shall be remembered as the action hero that inadvertently reminded us that he may not Die Hard but when he does why should his digital media die with him.

Mark Gregory Senior Lecturer in Electrical and Computer Engineering at RMIT University.