On Owning Music

Popular Christian blogger Tim Challies recently posted a thought-provoking column, On Books and True Ownership. His core points, like the legacy of leaving a printed library to children and grandchildren, were book-related. But along the way, he raised an interesting point that applies to music as much as to books: When you purchase a physical copy of a book (or audio recording), you own it. But when you purchase a digital copy of a book (or audio recording), you are typically granted a non-exclusive, non-transferable license to use it. 

We trade one thing for another: When we get the convenience of reading a book or listening to music on any device, we trade in the ability to (legally) re-sell it, and possibly hinder the ability to pass it along to future generations. (These sorts of things are often specified in the long terms of service that everyone checks the box that they agree to and few actually read.)

Is this a worthwhile trade? What are the long-term ramifications—say, for someone trying to study the history of Southern Gospel two hundred years from now, if the Lord has not yet returned?


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15 Letters to the Editor

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  1. Well, one can always burn CDRs from the files and pass them on. 😉 I am being silly, but even if technically that might go against their TOS, as far as I am concerned I am buying it and have the right under fair use to pass one copy on. Their TOS is to keep people from copying them several times or sending to several friends the same way they don’t want people doing that to CDs. The difference is that they can force you to accept TOS when you download. As far as selling, I wouldn’t want to, but if I did I would be tempted to find someone who wanted it and do so. If they are going to be that way and try to have us “rent” or “license” something without owning them, then they can forget it.

  2. Interesting. If I “buy” a digital download of a song, are you telling that I only own the license to listen to it? That I don’t actually own the recording?? If I buy a CD, I OWN that copy of the recording. Does that not apply to digital downloads?

    There are a couple of major SG artists who have been very vocal about protecting copyright material. I once asked one of them, (and never got a reply) if it was legally ok for me to download digital files of songs onto my KIDS iPods.

    I guess I had always thought that as long as it was for my kids, and if I had bought the file legally, that certainly, I did not need to buy a file for every iPod I downloaded the file onto.

    Am I correct or incorrect?

    And, for all those books that my wife has downloaded to her Kindle, do we not have the right to pass those files along to our kids when my wife is done reading them?

    • If you buy a CD, you own a copy of that recording. Whether or not it applies to digital downloads is entirely dependent on the terms of service at the online store where you purchased them, but it is a fairly frequent codicil that the files are licensed to you and not sold.

      As to books downloaded to your wife’s Kindle: You can pass them along to one child if you give that child the Kindle on which it resides. That much I can safely say. For anything further, you’d have to check Amazon’s Terms of Service, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they prohibited anything further.

      • John M,
        Even going back to a LP, the user only has a license to listen to the music and not resell copies. You own the physical piece of vinyl, plastic, or whatever, and can legally pass that on to someone else, but you’ve never owned the actual music.

        The digital license, however, is a little more far reaching in that it doesn’t really provide for the music to be given away to someone else, even if the original purchaser deletes their own copy.

        Now, they’d be hard pressed to enforce it. Most people should be able to give away their digital music collections without much fear of recourse as long as they don’t put it online and tell anyone who wants it to grab it.

      • But that’s the same as with a book – you actually own the physical copy of the book, though you don’t own the rights to reproduce it.

        It’s just that now, in this digital era, you don’t necessarily own your own copy anymore – you license it. 🙂

  3. Things were much simpler when we actually bought records. 🙂

    (Says the 26 year-old who has never played a record.)

    • You’ve never played a record? Check out rummage sales in your area; you can probably find one for $10 or less! Or you can find one built to convert records to mp3s at Radio Shack or Best Buy for ~$40. Then you can find plenty of SG records for $1-$3 each!

      • Why can’t I ever find the yard sales and consignment shops with the SG records for a couple of dollars each? LOL In all my years of searching, the only time I’ve found anything good was at a Salvation Army store where I found several records by the Rambos and a tape of Gerald Wolfe’s final Dumplin Valley Boys project.

      • It’s one of two things: (a) You live in an area where nobody is selling those items, or (b) You live in an area where other people check those sales more often than you do. 🙂

      • I’ve thought about it, but never convinced myself to actually try it yet.

      • Found goldmine at a flea market this weekend. I’ve been trying to get rid of a lot of my copies because they take up so much room. But I just couldn’t help myself. Found MANY early Statesmen and Blackwood Bros, sealed Kingsmen, Oak Ridge Boys, Florida Boys, Goodmans (w/Michael English…rare find) and Dixie Echoes LPs. Even found an LP of the Goss Brothers and Ruppes (when they were little girls). I think I’ll keep some of them, but may put several of them up on ebay.

        But back on topic, my wife and I went to Best Buy last night to purchase the new Carrie Underwood CD and had a similar discussion on OWNED hard copies versus Digital Downloads. If it’s an artist we really like, we usually get the hard copy. Digital downloads are convenient. But more and more rare, are CD’s…which leads me to believe there is much more value (and more information) in a hard copy of a CD, because as you said…it’s yours, no question.

    • Copying has been around as long as recording devices and things to play have been around. People used to record on to reel to reel recorders, cassette tapes and the like things from radio, 78s, LPs, and even concerts. Copying is not new. As technology has improved it is easier to get better quality and just what you want. Instead of listening to the radio until they play the song you want, it is technically possible to record an entire radio program, fast forward until you find the song you want, edit it out and bam. Or although I don’t do it, there are places where you can play what you want on demand and technically record it I suppose. I,myself, do neither of these as I buy what I want. But, the convenience, ease and quality makes copying more desirable to some people. When I got a CD burner (2000) it was somewhat more of blazing a trail in comparison to many. To record from LPS I had to figure out how to hook things up, which cable to get etc. There was little support out there. These days there are several things on sites to make this easier and even are devices that make it easier still. The ability to record LPs is no longer really rare or special. Many are doing it now.

  4. The intellectual property rights for recorded music belongs to the musicians who played on the original recordings, and the artist inherent, for their entire life and most of the time, those rights extend to their heirs. If you buy or download a CD, DVD, or a book in this case, you have the rights to re-copy that for your own personal use. For instance you might buy a CD from Gaither that you wish to download to your mp3 player, and for your own personal use. Totally legal. But once any copy from that CD is uploaded to one of the share sights on the web, or given to a friend, you are in violation of the law. I ojnce had a pastor tell me he loved our CD so much he copied it for every member of his church. I was flabergasted that he was so naive. He was proud of it too!

    SG is infamous for selling sound tracks to popular SG songs. However this can be a huge problem too, if those original tracks were recorded with union musicans. The contract for the session(s) is good only for the artist assigned on the contract, and then only for one project. If that original track is sold, or given freely to another, the musicians and/or union, can compel both the the end user and the seller to compensate the musicians af if they have never been paid. The only way around this is if the tracks were recored as “sound alikes” (ie Daywind does this alot) and were listed on the contract as such. Then the producer of such tracks can re-sell or lease those tracks legally….to a point! If the recordings were made under “limited pressing” rates, the contract is only good for the 1st 10,000 copies. Once that number has been reached, the musicians must be compensated the difference between “limited” and “master” scales. This is true for all recordings done under limited pressing scale arrangements. We have been there and done that!

    Just because you buy a CD or any recorded media for that matter, does not automatically allow you to re=use that in any manner you see fit. The legal entanglements can be daunting.

    • Yes, there is a whole level of complexity beyond even what I touched on; this is just the tip of the iceberg.

  5. Computer software is another thing that falls into copyright questions. A few years ago I bought some Christian software which I felt actually gave a good “balance” to the issue. Evidently the question had been raised about someone loading the software onto more than one computer, and they said to think of it as a book. A book can only be opened in one place at a time. So, with the softward, if a pastor (for example) wanted to load it onto the computer in his office and also on his home computer because he worked in both locations at different times, that was fine, because it would only be used in one place at a time. However, the same pastor couldn’t put it on multiple computers at church for his staff to be using concurrently.

    That was a simple and practical explanation that helped me understand the spirit of the law without getting into legal or legalistic technicalities in the law.

    I apply it to music this way: if i buy a CD for myself but want to load it onto my own computer or ipod device for my own use, I’ll do it, because I will only use one device at a time, and the multiple venues are simply for my convenience, depending on where I am and what I am doing at the time I listen to the music. However, I won’t make copies to give to others, because that would deprive the artists, record compnay, etc. of the rightful royalties and sales that they deserve.