For the vast majority of us who have never read the iTunes Terms of Service Agreement after downloading — for what seems like the 100th update — it may come as a surprise that we do not, in fact, own any of this “purchased” music.

This means that, under no circumstance, can we sell or transfer ownership of our music collection legally; this is what prompted British media outlet The Sun to report actor Bruce Willis was seeking legal action against Apple.

The Sun reported Bruce Willis was pursuing litigation against Apple after realizing he could not legally pass his iTunes music collection to his daughters at his will.

According to the agreement, users do not own music they buy through the store. Instead, they own a license to play and transfer that song on up to five different computers or devices.

It turned out the The Sun was wrong and Bruce Willis was not actually seeking any legal action against Apple. However, this does not dismiss the ownership questions brought about by the agreement.

Upon reading the iTunes Terms and Conditions, I discovered when you buy a single $0.99 song on iTunes, you are entitled to the following things: You are authorized to play the song for personal noncommercial use only, you can play the song on up to five authorized devices at any time, and you are also allowed to burn a song to a CD up to seven times. However, if you purchase a slightly more expensive version that costs $1.29, you may copy, store, and burn that song as “reasonably necessary for personal noncommercial use only.”

The option of buying a more expensive song appears “fine and dandy” and makes perfect sense. Apple charges a little bit more, but in return you get Digital Rights Management-free music, allowing you to copy it as many times as you want. However, the underlying problem is the transfer of ownership.

When you buy a track on iTunes, it syncs to the specific account you used to buy it. Apple provides no means to allow you to transfer ownership of anything you bought in the iTunes Store. However, when I go to Best Buy, I can buy a CD, and after I’m done listening to it, I can resell that CD to anyone I choose for any price I want, as long as the buyer is willing to buy it. The same thing goes for clothes, books, shoes, TVs, computers, beds, cars, Nerf Guns, yo-yos, 16th-century Spanish Art, etc.

So what most people don’t realize is when you buy a song on iTunes, you are essentially renting the song from Apple.  Your “purchase” does not actually mean you have ownership of it. This process is similar to BlockBuster.

So why does iTunes only allow you to rent songs, and not charge a little bit more money for outright ownership?

iTunes wants more money.

Nowadays, the music industry is no longer about music — it’s about distribution.

If the music industry was actually interested in music, there would be no legal battles over ownership because all music created under any label would be made easily available to all music services. You would not have artists making exclusive contracts to only sell music on Rhapsody, Microsoft Marketplace, or iTunes. You would have labels releasing all music in one format to all music services.

This is the last thing the music industry wants to happen, however. Record companies would be much happier, and get much more money, if things continued the way they do. A consumer “buys” an MP3 song from a music service, then technology advances and the consumer has to re-buy that same song in a new format.

The best solution for consumers, would be actually buying songs, not renting them. It might be more costly; however, we would be able to do whatever we want with them after buying them.

Unfortunately, because there is no legal precedent in America for the redistribution of digital goods, record companies are able to do whatever they want. This is why people like Bruce Willis — a.k.a. people with enough money to battle record companies — need to bring litigation against corporations like Apple, so questions of user ownership can be answered in court.  

Regrettably, Bruce Willis is not suing Apple, so all of these questions of ownership and digital goods will be swept under the rug of money by the broom of the music industry.

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