There is nothing new under the sun…turn, turn, turn

Do you own a radio?

So anyways, I have this whole new blog that I have to write stuff for, so I began conceiving a post about the history of music distribution. I was beginning to visualize it in my brain. First you started with sheet music, and then you had 78 rpm records, followed by 45 rpm records. followed by 33 1/3 rpm records. 8-track tapes fall somewhere in there. Then you moved from 33 1/3 rpm records to cassette tapes, and from there to compact discs, and from there to digital downloads.

It was all a nice neat progression, except for the 8-track tapes part. But then I realized that I had left something out.


After all, radio has been a major music distribution service for about a century. It has had a profound influence on the other distribution media. Services such as Billboard use radio airplay as one of their major determinants of song popularity. Plus, it’s a potential revenue source for the recording companies.

“But,” you may argue, “radio is different from the other media. You can own a CD, but you can’t own something you hear on the radio.”

Well, CAN you own a CD? The Electronic Frontier Foundation believes that Section 109 of the U.S. Copyright Act gives you ownership privileges, but the major record companies have consistently fought this over time.

For example, at the turn of the 20th century, book publishers tried to impose a minimum resale price on books by putting a notice in every copy. In the 1930s, record labels put “private use only, not for broadcast” notices on records in an attempt to block radio stations from playing their records without additional payment. In the 1980s, movie studios tried the same thing with video cassettes, trying to control the video rental business. Congress, the courts, and free markets have consistently rejected these efforts to undermine the first sale principle.

But that hasn’t stopped Universal Music Group (UMG). In May, UMG sued Roast Beast Music for auctioning “promo CDs” on eBay, CDs which Roast Beast Music had itself purchased from used record stores around Los Angeles.

And even if you believe that Section 109 of the U.S. Copyright Act gives you ownership of those CDs, it doesn’t necessarily allow you to own those digital downloads that you’ve purchased. Back in January 2011, Ed Bott spent some time looking over some legalese at the iTunes store. Here’s part of what he found:

You agree that the Service and certain Products include security technology that limits your use of Products and that, whether or not Products are limited by security technology, you shall use Products in compliance with the applicable usage rules established by Apple and its licensors (“Usage Rules”), and that any other use of the Products may constitute a copyright infringement. Any security technology is an inseparable part of the Products. Apple reserves the right to modify the Usage Rules at any time.

Now I will grant that there are also “usage rules” to a CD – I can’t wipe Whitney Houston’s vocal off a song, replace it with my own vocal, and sell it – but it looks like this whole idea of “ownership” is just an idea, with little basis in fact.

So your “ownership” of a digital download might be equivalent to your “ownership” of something you hear on the radio.

And if you want to test this theory, try to sell either of them.

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