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Bruce Willis, perhaps best known for his portrayal of bad ass heroes in action movies, isn’t happy that his vast digital music collection on iTunes can’t legally be handed down to his daughters upon his death. The Hollywood actor is even rumored to take legal action against Apple, according to reports from The Sun and the Daily Mail.
While information from the aforementioned celebrity gossip-heavy tabloids’ is usually not the most credible, the situation does raise a good point about digital music that most people don’t realize: who owns your music when you die? [Update: The Guardian also disputes any claim that Willis is actually suing Apple, as does Willis’ wife.]
When you make a purchase for a song on iTunes, you aren’t actually buying the music, but rather you’re buying the right to listen to that music, which Apple calls a nontransferable license. Apple may give you a digital copy of those songs, but the legalese states that you still don’t actually own it. — meaning that when Bruce Willis dies, so do those music licenses.
The majority of people probably ignore the iTunes Terms of Service agreement, since the company does provide you with DRM-free files to your purchases. If Bruce Willis wanted to simply give his daughters the vast collection of his iTunes library, he could always just download it to a hard drive, and hand it over to his kids when he bites the big one. It wouldn’t be legal, but since you don’t have to provide proof that identifies you as the one who bought the “nontransferable license,” it would certainly work.
This is an issue that several major music labels struggled with for years, fearing that digital music would eventually be freely passed around so often among friends and family that it would hurt music sales. Obviously, this hasn’t happened. Additionally, Apple made a deal with music labels for its iTunes Match cloud service, which charges users $25 per year to gain access to their full music library (regardless of it the songs were purchased on iTunes). Music Labels get a commission of that fee based on how many of their licensed songs appear in a person’s library.
That said, Willis is a pretty intimidating character. If he did take Apple to court, it would be about shining light on how ridiculous music licensing has become for the average consumer. It probably wouldn’t have anything to do with money — as the star probably has enough of it to buy each of his daughters their own matching music library.
Die Hard image via 20th Century Fox
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