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January 7, 2006

Another reason not to buy from iTunes Music Store

Posted 4356 days ago on January 7, 2006

I've been musing about the multiple ways we have to purchase music these days. It strikes me that the business of purchasing copyright music has always been a fudge. In the pre-digital era, you bought a physical item (LP, cassette, cartridge, etc) which you then owned. You can play it on a compatible device, lend it to a friend, sell it, no problem. However, there have always been small-print restrictions on what you can do. These mainly cover duplication, commercial use and public performance. I've dug out an old LP, and on the label it says "Unauthorized copying, hiring, lending, public performance and broadcasting of this record prohibited."

So the question that raises is this: did you primarily buy the physical item, or a license to the content? It never seemed to matter when the two were intertwined. Given that the physical value of an LP (without the license) is small, I guess it was mostly the license we were paying for; but if that was so, it was apparently tied to the physical item. Otherwise, we could have claimed a discount when buying the CD of the same recording, on the grounds that we were merely replacing the media. No such luck.

So now we have gone digital, and have also passed through a period when the CD was just like an LP but with digital pits in place of analog grooves. The link between the physical item and the license has been broken, since we can download just the bits. All we are buying now is a license along with access to a digital file. But what are the terms of that license?

Have a read of the iTunes terms of service. Scroll down to section 9, "Purchase of iTunes content". It's scary. Here's my quick summary of some of these terms:

  • Although you are paying mainly for a license, if you happen to lose the file you downloaded, iTunes doesn't promise to replace it for a nominal fee. It's your responsibility to keep it safe.
  • The product is only for personal use and you may not transfer, assign or sublicence your rights. Contrast this with an LP or CD, which I can lend to a friend or sell on Ebay.
  • Section 9(d) says that "in the event that iTunes changes any part of the Service or discontinues the Service, which iTunes may do at its election, you acknowledge that you may no longer be able to use Products to the same extent as prior to such change or discontinuation, and that iTunes shall have no liability to you in such case." Ouch. In a nutshell, iTunes could at any time change the rules however it likes and prevent me from enjoying the music. For example, I doubt that iTunes would snub its Windows users and require them all to purchase Macs, but it is within its rights to do so. Again, contrast this with an LP or CD, which I can play whenever I like on industry-standard equipment from multiple vendors.

All of this means that unlike the old model of building a music collection, buying from iTunes is in no sense an investment. If you spent a thousand pounds on iTunes stuff and then walked out and were killed by a passing bus, then all that money just went up in smoke. Non-transferable rights, see.

Let's leave aside the arguably inadequate bitrate and the stupidly inflexible price. Buying from iTunes is just a terrible deal for the customer.

In my view, the subscription model is the only one that makes sense in the digital era. You purchase the right to listen to whatever you like, but for a limited period. Don't be misled by any idea of "owning" iTunes music. You get very restricted rights that fall a long way short of ownership.

If we really want to buy a lifetime right to some piece of digital content, then iTunes is not the way to do it. It is just unacceptable lock-in. And yes, I know I can burn a CD that's of lesser quality than one I could purchase for less money in the high street. Curiously, that does not make me feel better about it; and if it did, a quick read of the terms of service would soon make me feel ill again.

Luckily, you can still get CDs.

Re: Another reason not to buy from iTunes Music Store

Posted 4352 days ago by Kevin • • • Reply

(1) All EMI and Sony/BMG CDs will include copy protection in 2006. CDs also have their problems. Ironically, burning CDs through iTunes (for now) doesn't include any copy protection.
(2) I convert iTunes CDs into MP3s to avoid running into the "iTunes service ending" problem (yah right). Most people will more likely run into problems with listening to subscription model music when and where they want- that's a huge problem.
(3) Music companies are the problem. iTunes has to set up conditions that the music companies will accept. That's why we have the draconian restrictions- subscription music & DRM'ed-to-the-hilt downloadable music are both BAD SOLUTIONS.
(4) I also contest your iTunes lower-quality CD thing. Although technically that may be true I personally cannot hear the difference. I'm guessing that most people won't be able to hear the difference.


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