18th January 2013

Digital Blues

If you bought some literature or music, you only really had to worry about the physical medium, not the intangible content. You could give the book away, you could lend the LP to a friend. Ultimately you could pass them all on in your will (I inherited some great books from my dear departed grandmama, even if her collection of polka 78’s wasn’t much to my taste).

If you bought some literature or music, you only really had to worry about the physical medium, not the intangible content. You could give the book away, you could lend the LP to a friend. Ultimately you could pass them all on in your will (I inherited some great books from my dear departed grandmama, even if her collection of polka 78’s wasn’t much to my taste).

Of course, there were still limits to what you were and weren’t allowed to do, but these were by and large commonsense rules and mainly seemed dictated by physical constraints. You weren’t allowed to photocopy your Great Gatsby, or write it out in manuscript, but that was never really going to be an option. And if you needed to apply for permission to recite it in public or adapt it for the stage, that wasn’t an insuperable hurdle either.

It was the same with vinyl. OK, it was technically possible to copy an album to tape, but the steep loss of quality soon made this of limited appeal to anyone other than schoolkids. I don’t recall hometaping ever finally killing music – it may even have helped it along by giving us the chance to listen check out the goods before spending our pocket money on the real thing.

Modern entertainment seems so fraught by comparison. The law hasn’t changed, well, not since 1988. And content is content is content (even if it’s not as good as it used to be). But media have gone digital and this has had huge repercussions: it’s now technically and commercially trivial to run off endless identical copies, with no loss of quality. That’s scuppered the big corporates, certainly for the time being, and has led to a general disinclination among younger generations to pay for anything at all.

And what do you even get for your money? What do you get when you download What Do You Get? More and more, it’s only a personal licence to use, and comes with none of the “transmissibility” we’re used to with old-fashioned physical media.

It’s not a big issue yet, because even early adopters of digital music are still relatively hale and hearty, but can you bequeath your MP3s? You may have seen the rumour last summer about Bruce Willis and his daughters (does that make it a Rumer rumour?) and how he was getting stroppy about not being able to leave them his digital music collection in his will.

Turned out it was one of those silly-season made-up jobs, but the point stands. How can you ensure your descendants get to enjoy The Return of Bruno in the same way you did? What if your licence for your music terminates on your death? What if your grieving family can’t find the password for the little slice of the Cloud which stands as a monument to your artistic sensibilities? Kindle’s t&c’s don’t seem to allow for testamentary disposition. Nor do iTunes’. And there has already been litigation in the USA (where else?) over a family’s right to access a dead son’s Facebook page.

As things stand, someone somewhere may well be within their rights to wipe your Kindle and close your account the minute you turn up your toes. Same goes for your music, and your photos, and your blog entries. No doubt it’s one of those things that will sort itself out in time - the EU or US will probably impose a solution on the rest of us. But in the meantime, possession is 9/10ths of the law, and it’s best to keep your digital stuff where you can see it. In a nice physical form. Bit like a book. Or a CD. Plus ça change…


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