A Startup Asks: Why Can’t You Resell Old Digital Songs?
This is a key case in digital rights law — one of the biggest issues users have with digital media butts heads with the industries’ desire to sue anyone who could possibly be copying anything. Whether we are talking books, movies, songs, or any form of digital art the industry is trying to limit your ownership of your copy, and ReDigi is trying to break down that faux ownership barrier that the industry erects.
If you come over to my house I can lend you a physical book or CD that I own, or I can give it to you, or I can sell it to you all legally*. You can’t do that with e-books or songs. You can’t even do it with your wife, son, or daughter, which is really ludicrous. E.g. the only way to “share” a book between two household kindles is to deregister it on one account, and move it to another. For amazon there isn’t a shared bookshelf in the house like there is with your physical books. The really bad news is that the “deregister/register to spouse’s account” trick doesn’t work with Fire and the newer Amazon appliances, as they wipe content when moving between accounts. So this case is seminal, and everyone should watch it closely.
In the iTunes store, the hit song “Someone Like You” by Adele sells for $1.29. Head over to ReDigi, an online marketplace where people can resell the music files they’ve purchased, and there’s the track for only 59 cents.
It’s the very same soulful tune. The difference is that ReDigi calls the copy on its site “used” or “recycled” (it was originally sold on iTunes). These are terms usually applied to physical goods like worn novels or unwanted CDs, not the growing volume of songs, books, and games composed of easily shared, everlasting bits. ReDigi’s plans—and the legal debate they have generated—touch on the changing nature of ownership in an increasingly digital age (see “A Cloud over Ownership”).
The Massachusetts-based startup is applying a concept of ownership ingrained in U.S. law: that a person who buys creative work can resell the originally purchased copy. “You buy it, and you own it. You should be able to sell it,” says ReDigi chief technology officer Larry Rudolph, who is also a computer science researcher on leave from MIT. “If you steal it, you shouldn’t be able to sell it. It’s very simple.”
But Capitol Records, a division of the music giant EMI, is now suing ReDigi, accusing it of being a “clearinghouse for copyright infringement.” The Recording Industry Association of America has also sent the company a cease-and-desist order. “While ReDigi touts its service as the equivalent of a used record store, that analogy is inapplicable: used record stores do not make copies to fill up their shelves,” Capitol’s filing states.
* The bonus the industry seems to ignore: people lend the things they truly love because they want to share that experience with their friends. When the friend doesn’t return it, you end up buying another copy for yourself. I’ve lost track of the numbers of copies of “Babel-17 / Empire Star” and “Dangerous Visions” that I’ve lent to friends.