iTunes or my tunes?


On learning that Apple can violate my digital rights any time they want.

There’s an old joke about bicycles: that we don’t really own them, we just rent them from the thieves.

This somehow summons the truth about homeownership: that we don’t really own homes either, we just share them with the bank.

Qualified ownership even applies to clothing and furnishing. We believe we own these, but any time it wants to, the fashion world can declare them obsolete and render them worthless.

This does nothing to dim our sense of ownership. We are outraged at the theft of a bicycle. We would be astonished to find bank executives having lunch on our patio, (“actually, if you read the contract, you will see we own this part of your house-the whole yard actually. Hank’s gone to get his barbeque.”) We would be unhappy to get a note from J. Crew telling us that the expiry date for your new shoes has been moved forward and that we must cease and desist in their public display. No, as we understand and feel it, we own these things as if ownership were outright and in perpetuity.

Ownership has this quality in part because the things we own are part of what Goffman would call our identity kit–they help define who we are, both inwardly and outwardly. Strip us of these things, and our lives become, as Lear put it, “cheap as beasts.” Naturally, we regard the most ‘telling” of our possessions as if they were strategic resources and we defend them as governments do. Our security depends on their security.

Generally, the market place understands this about us. In a depreciating world, it sells us things we should lease. It leases things we should rent. And it rents us things we could borrow. It “gets” the power of ownership and makes us pay for it.

But not the digital industry. Apple gives us qualified access to the songs we download from iTunes. Realtunes gives us access only so long as we pay a monthly fee. Apple can actually change our rights to songs retroactively.

Of all the identity suppliers, music is the most potent, more than homes, more than clothes, and, yes, more than bicycles. We may not need to own our music outright, and indeed as our tastes expand and our library grows, outsourcing the task of choosing, storing, managing, and delivering music makes more and more sense. But we will never cease to think of our music as our music, as something we must own.

It is clear why Apple instituted Digital Rights Management. It was trying to recruit content suppliers still traumatized by Napster and the great give-away. But I thought the war was won. iTunes road in like St. George. It killed the dragon and brought recording labels from the verge of irrelevance and bankruptcy. Isn’t this the time to extract a reward from grateful villagers? More to the point, Apple created a new channel that rivals retail ones. Does Warner Brothers have a choice here? Can they compete without a digital play? I think we would all like to be there when WB executives tell the Board why WB has now “gone dark” in digital distribution channels. In sum, Apple no longer needs to supply DRM to get the supplier to play. The supplier has no reasonable choice.

Think back, way back, to that afternoon when your mother asked if you could share your music with your little sister. This is the kind of thing that persuades a 13 year old that parents are certifiably insane and possibly extraterrestrial. This music could NOT be shared with our idiot sibling because it had been the object of our devoted attention, working its way out of the grove through the air into consciousness with such power and completion that some part of the artist was now some part of the fan. No, we won’t want to share our “music” with our sister. Not Apple, either. Dear M. Jobs, they’re not iTunes, they’re our tunes.


Wingfield, Nick. 2004. The New Digital Media: You Might Have It, But Not Really Own It.” Wall Street Journal. August 16, 2004, p. B1.

4 thoughts on “iTunes or my tunes?

  1. jbelkin

    I’m not disagreeing with you in principal. I think both the record labels & movie studios are short-thinkers. People want convenience over all else – why CD’s won over LP’s – as a huge CD buyer, it wasn’t the fidelity but the fact I could play them in my car & elsewhere, they took up less room and I could skip around tracks. As for theft, we have cameras, guards, security strips and alarms and yet we still have pretty much exactly the same amount of shoplifting & shrinkage.

    As for itunes, it’s the least oppressive of DRM’s that you can find. To delete the DRM, just burn the track to a CD. You have that priviledge of every track on the itms unlike some other stores that require you to keep track of what’s burnable or not. And as long as you don’t need more than 7 of the eact same CD, you can essentially dupliacte that track as much as you like. And if you just want to listen to the music and don’t care – you can load it into as many ipods as you prefer.

    To get the now DRM-less track back into your ipod, you have 7 formats to choose including 3 lossless (again, more than most).

    So, with 5 minutes work – you have a hard copy backup and more options to do with the track as you please.

    Is it as good as making your own rips from a CD – of course not.

    But the other thing is that is the itunes music store is another CHOICE. Other than maybe a couple tracks, everything is available in another format – whether you want to buy it as a CD or download it illegally. The itunes mustic store and AAC M4P’s don’t replace anything. It’s there if you want it. They tell you upfront about what you get & don’t get.

    For the convenience of sitting at home, you get a track for $1 – like everything else, it has benefits and negative atributes – same as with buying anything – there’s no perfect object in the world for everyone.

    Personally, I have 4,000 Cd’s, hundreds of LP’s and while I have downloaded 5 free itunes AC M4P’s, I will probably never buy one but that’s my choice. I don’t mind hunting around for the CD on sale – for others, they’;d rather pay $1 for just the songs they want – it’s just another choice. For us, it’s not a great choice but for others, they loath (or apparently loath) getting in their car, wandering around a store and buying a physical Cd which they then have to rip anyway. To them, they’re willing to give up some rights for 20 minutes of their time.

    And unlike some closed subscriptions like Real’s streams where you get EXCLUSIVE content in ONE proprietary format and once you watch it – that’s it and there’s no way to convert it to anything else (outside of running your own kludgy screen capture) – the itms is a decent middle ground – it proves that people are willing to buy digital bits/bytes provided it’s convenient and not some strange format that doesn’t even fast forward correctly like WMA’s. Is it perfect – no. I agree with you in pricipal that we should own what we buy but it’s going to a sit down restaurant – we pay for the food but we do have to return the plates and flatware.

  2. Grant

    Seth, funny, I thought this was their “out.” Thanks, Grant

    Jbelkin, zounds, would a great post! Thank you very much. Now we know. And splendid closing simile. Thanks. Grant

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