Bruce Willis Isn't Suing Apple Over Who Owns His iTunes Library, But Maybe Someone Should

Over the holiday weekend, an odd story spread across the Internet newsosphere. It seemed plausible enough: actor Bruce Willis, allegedly concerned that his children wouldn’t be able to inherit his iTunes library in the event of his untimely demise, was suing Apple to fix this grave injustice. Only it turned out not to be true. The part about Bruce Willis, that is. The part about how access to the files we “purchase” on iTunes dies when we do? That part is totally true.

Here’s the thing with digital content: you feel like you’re buying it, but you don’t “own” it. At best, you’ve got a lifetime lease. (If you lose your password or get arbitrarily locked out of your account, the lease is even shorter.) With books and music in the physical realm, you’re free to sell or give away your copy of Sgt. Pepper or Twilight, and when you die, they go to your heirs. If you own digital copies of the same works, current terms of use indicate that when you die, the right to use those files dies with you.

This makes matters simpler for companies like Amazon and Apple, which don’t have to deal with squabbling relatives arguing over who gets to take home which of Mom’s albums after she dies. Their answer is simple: the right to use digital content is currently nontransferable. A few states have laws regarding access to online accounts after death, but none have legislated the afterlife of our iTunes accounts. Are you ready to write off every piece of media you buy in the digital era?

Bruce Willis Isn’t Suing Apple Over iTunes Music Ownership Rights [TechCrunch]
Who inherits your iTunes library? [MarketWatch]


Edit Your Comment

  1. mattyb says:

    Just save the files as .mp3’s. Problem solved.

    • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

      This doesn’t work for everything. In particular, anything that isn’t a song. Digital books, videos, software, etc.

      • JEDIDIAH says:

        All of the things you’ve mentioned have DRM stripping tools available. Of course this is it’s own can of worms. Plus it still doesn’t address the “ownership” question.

        With a file that is not associated to a physical something, you have no real ownership.

        • YouDidWhatNow? says:

          And if you’re paying for a streaming service instead of download anyway?

          Stupid is as stupid does.

  2. Costner says:

    This is one of the many reasons I’ve been somewhat reluctant to entirely jump on the digital bandwagon. The fact is, they charge just as much for the digital copy of an album or a movie as they do for the physical version… so why not buy the physical version and just rip it myself?

    In terms of albums this is a negative because often there are only one or two good songs on the album so I’d be paying for songs I have no desire to own, but for greatest hits albums or compilations it often makes more sense to buy the physical media. Newer movies often come with a digital copy for free as well… so why not buy the physical version, use the digital copy on the iPad and phone and laptop… then stash the Blu-Ray on a shelf somewhere?

    As far as heirs collecting my movies and music after I’m gone… I’m guessing they won’t really care since they probably won’t understand or appreciate 99% of my collection. Then again I have it all backed upon external hard drives so if they really want it they can easily obtain it. This seems like a gigantic first world problem which isn’t really a huge deal.

    • KillerBee says:

      “so why not buy the physical version and just rip it myself?”

      I used to think the exact same thing until just recently. Since I ripped my entire CD collection and stored it digitally, I have boxes upon boxes of CDs stored in my basement that I will never look at or use ever again. The only thing they are good for now is as a backup in case something happens to all those digital files… which I also have backed up elsewhere, so really they just take up space. I may never buy another physical copy again.

      • axhandler1 says:

        So now that you’ve ripped them and don’t want the CDs sitting around anymore, throw them on ebay or CL. Sounds like they are all in good condition if you just ripped them then stored them, so you should be able to recoup at least some of your investment.

        • Costner says:

          That is a violation of copyright however… the right to the digital file is directly tied to the media that was originally purchased. Technically if you rip the CD and then sell the CD, you need to delete any digital copies you may have.

          If you are going to do that, you may as well just download the music illegally since the end result is the same… a digital copy you don’t have any legal right to own. Just sayin’.

        • KillerBee says:

          I’ve often considered that, but can’t seem to part with them. They were collected over a span of over twenty years. There seems to be a bit of sentimental value to them. Besides, my wife would kill me.

      • Costner says:

        I can understand that (I have the same problem with physical CDs in boxes myself). I just think the music companies should give a significant discount for the digital copy rather than the physical media. In many cases the cost is the same – so if feels like you are somewhat cheated when you pay for the digital copy.

        If a CD costs $15, the digital copy should cost no more than $10. On the flip side, if I’m paying 1.29 per song for a 12 track album (digital), I shouldn’t be able to buy that same CD in the bargain bin at Target for $8… that is idiotic, yet I see it all the time especially for older albums.

        My latest music purchases have been digital only because I’ve just bought individual tracks, but when it comes to a complete album I still have issues with buying it digital when the price is equal to or even higher than the physical media that I can hold in my own two hands.

        • KillerBee says:

          I agree wholeheartedly. Distributing digitally has got to be immensely cheaper than physical distribution, so why not pass on the cost? Reason: because they don’t have to. Simple as that.

          • KillerBee says:

            or, pass on the *savings* I should have said…

          • Popnfresh100 says:

            “Distributing digitally has got to be immensely cheaper than physical distribution”

            Why do people think this?

            When you burn a physical copy it is a one-and-done process, the CD costs next to nothing. With a digital copy you need to provide lifetime “cloud” access, backups, redownloads, customer service, etc.

            Just because something is new, intangible and easy to steal doesn’t mean it is cheap.

            I’ll give you some numbers. Let’s say you have 25 GB worth of data you want to save. You can either:

            1. Buy a fifty pack of 700 mb CD-RWs on newegg for $14.99 with free shipping (which actually gives you 15 GB of surplus storage, and is good for practically forever)

            2. Purchase a 25 GB plan on Google Drive for $2.49/month, $29.88/year. Continue paying for as long as you want the storage.

            Clearly, the physical storage is much, much cheaper.

            Why would you expect it to be different for record companies? Particularly when they probably get better bulk discounts for the CDs.

        • Tacojelly says:

          The music industry STILL has not figured out digital distribution.

          Take video games for example, Steam games will often go on sale to ridiculous levels because they know they can sell a game for 5 dollars to an audience more than 4 times the size of the people that would have bought it for 20 (hence more profit). I have bought a ton of games for steam, and I’m fine with having their license die with me because I know I got them dirt cheap.

          People still see these music prices and compare them to retailers and torrenting and figure why bother?

          That being said, I LOVE the trend of being able to buy an album on vinyl and getting a code to download the digital version free. Best of both worlds (albeit at a higher cost).

        • scurvycapn says:

          Everyone seems to think digital distribution means things should automatically be much cheaper. This isn’t the case for a number of reasons.

          1. “There’s no packaging or physical items, so it should cost less.” This is bogus because every digital marketplace takes a cut of the sales. Whether it is Apple, Google, Amazon, Steam, etc. The standard is 30%.

          2. The big reason that you end up seeing equal prices is that big box stores don’t like getting hosed on pricing. Spend $60 at Best Buy or $50 to download? It’s a no brainer. For that reason, many big box stores refuse to stock products if the digital download price would be cheaper than the boxed.

          • Costner says:

            1. If I buy a digital version from Amazon, or a physical version from Amazon… Amazon is still taking their cut. Why should the physical version be equal to or in some cases less expensive than the digital version? Fact is I have seen older greatest hits albums for under $9 yet the digital version is 99 cents per track which equals $10 to $12. That makes no sense.

            The fact is, there are costs to press the CD, costs to print the liner notes, costs of the jewel case, assembly and wrapping. Costs to package and ship the CD to me. These costs should be at least several dollars, and with shipping could be much more.

            2. Big box stores stock what will sell, and there are still a lot of people who are download adverse or who want a physical copy. There is also a large percentage of our nation which still does not have broadband Internet service, so cloud storage and digital downloads aren’t even feasible. I don’t believe stores care what the digital cost is and their inventory systems and pricing is based upon acquisition costs mixed with demand. In short – I don’t buy your argument (no pun intended).

      • JEDIDIAH says:

        They still remain authoritative proof of purchase.

        Even 500 CDs don’t take up that much space. Just put them in a box in a closet somewhere that’s not going to get moldy or flood.

        The fact that you are going to ignore them is not a bad thing. It’s one of the benefits of modern technology.

    • frank64 says:

      We give up a lot when we buy the e-media, not being able to loan or sell means more revenue for the producers because each use is a sale instead of a loaner getting passed around.

      Also, the distribution is less, but in most instances they actually charge more for it. I can buy a DVD of series seasons a little cheaper than the digital “buy”. I usually buy used and get it for about half. The more people buy the e-media the less used will be out there. I think the higher prices are partly due to middleman marking it up more. Apple likes to get top dollar for everything.

  3. cameronl says:

    That’s why I still prefer buying CDs and DVDs. I just rip the CDs myself. (still can’t figure out how to rip DVDs, though.)

  4. Jawaka says:

    Its the same thing with games your purchase on Steam. But my question is who’s going to tell Apple or Steam that you died?

    • Applekid says:

      I’m hoping to haunt the inventors of DRM when I’m dead. So far my spooky moan isn’t that great, but I’ll hit it eventually.

      • RandomLetters says:

        You have to start it deep in your chest. That’s what I do with my manical laugh and it’s golden now. All I need now are some henchmen and a secret underground lair.

      • Kuri says:

        Just try to imitate the sound of an empty wallet. That’ll scare DMR developers more than anything.

  5. incident-man stole my avatar says:

    I still want to know: How does an artist sign a mp3?

  6. Cerne says:

    You voluntarily sign a contract with Apple that clearly states the terms of purchase. Don’t like it? Don’t use iTunes there’s nothing to sue over here.

    • benminer says:

      That doesn’t always work. You can sometimes successfully sue to have a certain element of a contract negated. The “you signed the contract so you’re stuck with it” defense is tough, but it’s not bullet proof.

  7. Chmeeee says:

    I have the files though, and they don’t require a login to get them. If and when I die, my heirs (nonexistent) are free to take my computer and the associated files, and don’t need any login beyond the password to my machine to get them. Yes, they don’t have the ability to REdownload them from iTunes, but then again they don’t have the ability to REtake delivery of my car either.

  8. Lyn Torden says:

    The legacy situation is that you can leave the vinyl records and CDs with music in your will, just as you can transfer the ownership of the media with whatever is on it. So it should be allowed to do the same with media that has legally copied content on it, already. So if you download music to a player and this is legal under the licensing you got it under, then just leave that player in your will to whoever you want to have it.

    Transferring content to another media is copying. Traditionally, sales of vinyl records and CDs never allowed this even though people did it all the time. Copying under a “personal exemption” ties the copy to the source media so if you sell one, the other must go with it or be destroyed. That applies whether it is convenience to play in a different way (like ripping a CD to a music player) or just as a backup.

  9. Not Given says:

    I guess you could just put your passwords and security Q/A in a sealed envelope to be given to whoever you want after you die, then they use your identity to burn whatever they want onto physical media?

  10. Tacojelly says:

    This is an easy solution. Move past BUYING media and get on board with streaming. I don’t buy movies or music anymore, I just pay a small monthly fee to different services and I don’t feel like I’m wasting money or buying a virtual asset. More and more I think subscriptions are the way to go (I just got Adobe Creative Cloud and I love it).

    If you want to leave something to your kids, take the money you save on not buying digital/physical albums and movies and invest in some nice furniture.

    • ChuckECheese says:

      Small monthly fee indeed … Adobe Creative Cloud is $50 to $80 per month. And you don’t own anything once you quit paying. Whatta deal! Add on music streaming, video, etc. Not a small amount of money at all.

      • Tacojelly says:

        Do the math, Creative Cloud is 50 a month (or 600 a year). Assuming you want to be the most up to date and use most of collection, you only lose money after subscribing for 4 years. Considering this is a platform that should be MAKING you money, I think the loss is negligible.

        I pay nothing for streaming music currently, and less than 20 dollars a month for Netflix Hulu combo less than…
        1. Even the most basic cable package
        2. A single new release on DVD or Blu-ray
        3. Seeing one movie in theaters

        I haven’t bought a physical movie in a few years, and yet I have more options than ever.

    • JEDIDIAH says:

      Streaming is a stupid suggestion. Wireless and phone networks are woefully insufficient for the job. They are slow and unreliable and occasionally just unavailable. You can’t wander off the grid and not even try.

      The network is nowhere near as robust or universal as the power grid and even that has holes.

      Pretending it’s a solution is just crazy talk.

      Stuff vs. media isn’t an exclusive or proposition.

      • Tacojelly says:

        I guess it depends on where you live, but I stream wireless music and podcasts all the time without fail. And streaming audio is very low on bandwidth, a lot of it can exist in the cache if you drive past a spotty area.

        Video isn’t really something I view while I’m out, and your home internet should be as reliable as most other utilities.

        But just as I pointed out with Adobe, there are other subscription models that don’t mean streaming. Playstation Plus, a subscription service with an additional fee, lets you download a number of free games each month. Internet based content delivery is here to stay, I say embrace it and celebrate the advantages.

  11. Gail123 says:

    I leased a car from Enterperise. The first evening we found that the lights did not work so we went to our hotel as we could not drive anywhere with it that evening. We had trouble with getting the ac to work. It finally did then quit. We called to let them know we needed another car as it was really hot here in Oklahoma. We spent so much time on the phone and nobody knew what the other was doing. On my 41st wedding anniversary my husband and I spent 4 hours in the Wal-mart parking lot trying to contact Enterprise about this and that know one had showed up. They told us to call the McAlister office and see if they had a car, (why does the customer have to do your job?)
    Mcalister office just said we are an hour and a half from Broken Bow and hung up. This is just the start of the story. I do no want to pay for the rental as we were so taken advantage of. I want my money back period. What can I do?

  12. quail20 says:

    Buy your tunes on Amazon without DRM? Pay a bit more at Apple to get your iTunes DRM free? Or go to numerous other sites that don’t have DRM at all? (And no, I will not even mention pirating.)

    As to books, this one is a pain. You either strip them of their DRM like some Amazon executives will do with their own collection or you buy only real books. At least with real books the publishers can’t sneak into them and make changes whenever they feel like it. (And your Kindle won’t substitute other words for the word ‘nook’. Poor Edgar Allen Poe will never read the same.)

    In the 90s DRM was touted as some fantastic thing that would help the consumer and the companies supplying content. Of course that was propaganda by the DRM people. The reality is that you’re hamstrung when it comes to what you can do with the stuff you lease.

  13. Nicolaus99 says:

    One more reason to envy pirates. Better price can’t be helped, but better product and better service? That’s just shameful.

  14. Kate Blue says:

    I have the problem that my kid is getting better and all the songs she bought on my account – how do I transfer them to her? She still uses my account, but she’s in college and eventually will need her own account.

    • Kate Blue says:

      Getting bigger – not better. Geesh

      • Coleoptera Girl says:

        Burn them to CDs and she should be able to rip them to her own iTunes account. To keep the legality happy, you might want/need to delete the songs from your account. On the other hand, you might contact Apple and see if they can do some customer service magic, but no guarantees there. Definitely back up all your music in a non-iTunes form before letting them get their hands into it.

  15. Pete the Geek says:

    Firstly, digital music and movies are relatively inexpensive. If my kids or grandkids want their own copy of Britney Spears’s “Oops I Did it Again”, they can pay their own $0.69 cents for it. Secondly, how many of us inherited our parents’ 45s, LPs and 8-tracks? Thirdly, what child or grandchild wants his or her parent’s music and movies? Finally, this is a non-issue. Enjoy your music and movies and let your kids and grandkids build their own media libraries.

  16. Mr. Bill says:

    My iTunes library is the last thing my kids would want.

  17. Mark says:

    KNow what’s sad, people who get music free online by downloading are called pirates but what a harsh generalizing name, when you think about it.

    Shouldn’t politicians be called, tyrants then, and the President a mass murderer.

    Sometimes the way things are stated are used to sway people’s opinions; i.e “Right to choose,” should be called “right to kill,” then we would see a vast amount of people’s opinions change on the subject.

    On top of my head:

    Political contribution=Political bribe
    Political debates=Political Lies
    IRS=Servants of the Rich
    US Army=Trained Killers
    Police Force=Police the Poor

  18. davydoodoo says:

    Complain to the media companies, not Apple. Steve Jobs hated DRM as much as the next guy. His comprimise was iTunes Plus. All digital delivery stores are hancuffed by the record companies.

    Since 2007 Apple converted all music to DRM free iTunes Plus. Any music purchased pre-iTunes Plus can be converted for a fee. These files are not tied to an account to play and can, although still illegal according to the music industry, be shared. The only caveat is that the purchasers account info is attached to the file.

  19. Thoreau says:

    The ReDigi case that is in the courts should help bring some clarity to this, or at least about resale of digital assets as apply to first sale doctrine. Even though it is certainly different, certain aspect about digital as property should get some answers.

  20. zippy says:

    Having dealt with my father’s massive collection of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books and bad movies from the 80’s and 90’s, I think my kids are lucky they won’t have to deal with disposing of my bad taste after I kick the bucket.

  21. esc27 says:

    Music – rip/reencode to MP3. Although if services like Spotify continue to catch on, your kids might ignore the old/outdated “file” copies of songs in favor of streaming (which should be more reliable in the future…)

    Movies – Many aren’t worth buying, so Netflix. The ones that are, physical disc is still the best bet. Blu-ray over DVD for quality, but if 4K TVs catch on everyone will need to upgrade their collections again…

    Books – The digital market is still too new and very much a rip off. Consider digital books disposable until the market matures and, if you really want something to give your kids buy the better quality hardcover versions of books. Or alternatively support your local library.

    Video games – Most become outdated very quickly and would be of little interest to the next generation. Unfortunately it is also becoming very difficult to get/keep the good ones. The industry hates used game sales and it actively looking for ways to prevent their reuse. We may not be able to save them much longer in any format (without some hacking/piracy…)

    Software – Just like video games it goes out of date quickly. The few exceptions worth saving are very rare.

    • CrackedLCD says:

      I’m sorry, but I don’t like the idea of paying a fee in perpetuity for the privilege of accessing my favourite content. Streaming is for things I’d never pay for anyhow, like renting DVDs at Redbox or listening to the radio. Some movies, books and albums, I want at my disposal forever.

      I don’t understand how these licenses can even be enforced as long as I have a DRM-free copy of the file in my possession.

      We have GOT to get away from this cockamamie idea of entertainment content being something we should only be allowed to “rent” from the cloud. This only benefits the content holders, not the consumers. By handing over ownership of our content to creators, we’re giving them the right to charge what they want, when they want and deliver content as they see fit. That’s bad for consumers. I want my content how I want it, where I want it and when I want it. If I want to listen to a song, I should be able to access it any time on my computer, my home stereo, my mp3 player and my cell phone without paying for apps or access fees for each. single. device.

      That’s the future we’re headed towards, and many of you seem eager to pay more to get less. It’s mind boggling. My CD doesn’t need a network connection to be played, and it doesn’t need to have its license verified by an online cloud system before I can access it. It just works, in any format I want it to, when I want it to. And this is somehow bad?