/ Shopping, Technology

You buy it, we still own it – the battle for digital ownership

Digital music graphic equaliser with green and red lights

If you own something, should it be yours to sell? The website Redigi thinks so, even when you’re talking about digital music files. It’s getting sued to pieces in US courts for hosting second-hand MP3 files on its site.

I’ve got a job lot of CDs at home, collecting dust and doing nothing in particular for my eardrums since I burned them to MP3s years ago. If I wanted to sell these second-hand CDs at a car-boot sale, I wouldn’t expect EMI to come knocking on my door with a court summons.

Yet that’s exactly what’s happening in the States with Redigi, ‘the world’s first pre-owned digital marketplace’. EMI is suing Redigi to the tune of $150,000 for every EMI song that Redigi has successfully sold since its launch in 2011.

Digital renters, not owners

When you download a legally-purchased music file, you’re effectively paying for a licence to use it, rather than paying for its ownership. This means that you don’t have the same rights to share or sell digital music as you do with physical CDs.

Redigi founder John Ossenmacher thinks there needs to be a major shift in how ownership of digital products is thought of:

The digital rights of citizens are being fought for. It’s a principle of commerce: when you buy it, you own it. For those that would like to see it changed to “when you buy it, we still own it”, we say their position is a losing one.

The case, yet to be settled, could set a precedent for consumer rights to treat digital purchases in the same way as physical ones. Redigi is looking to expand into Europe, where the recent European Court of Justice has recently ruled that you should be allowed to resell software licenses.

The Redigi approach seems pretty fair to me. It uses software that checks if your music files have been purchased legally. It then erases these files from your own machine while it uploads them to its own second-hand marketplace. Easy as that.

Clearing out my old CD collection is still on my to-do list. One day, I’d like the same rights with my purchased MP3 collection.


This has been a problem for several years now, which is why I still insist of having a disc in my grubby mitts. If for no other reason than if the device I’m using it on breaks, I still have the disc. Not sure what to do about “oh, can I download it again please my PC/phone/ has broken and I’ve lost my digital copy”. I can imagine the simple answer being “of course, after you’ve paid for another copy”.

There are benefits to being a pessimist. Other than you’re never let down only pleasantly surprised if something works 🙂

It seems to me that providing your digital copy is erased when you pass the download on to someone else, it should be legal. The problem is ensuring you don’t keep a copy (e.g. on another device). Same as copying a CD or DVD for yourself and then selling the original. How can this be verified? Going off topic, but similar, it irritates me when I have bought a parking ticket, not used the full time, but technically am not permitted to pass it on to another driver – I reckon I’ve paid for a space for the full period so should be able to hand it on. I expect charges would then increase to compensate. Same thing would happen with downloads if they could be passed on – price increase because of reduced sales?

There is a reason why packing tickets cannor be passed on. It’s to avoid the following situation:

You park. You buy a ticket. I park. I do not buy a ticket. I receive a fine. I buy your old ticket. I use your old ticket as “proof” that I bought a ticket. I avoid the fine.

@Paul – Officially, the offence is “failing to display” a parking ticket, not failing to buy one. Therefore, the scenario you describe is not a reason for them to prohibit selling your unexpired ticket. You physically can’t display the same ticket in two cars at the same time.

No, but you can physically display the same ticket in two cars at the different times. However you are prohibited to do so by their rules which states they are non-transferable.

This reminds me of a related matter. There is uncertainty when it comes to inheritance. When you die, does your digital collection become part of your estate, which can be inherited? Or does it go back to the companies you bought them from, at no extra cost to these companies? I remember reading about this issue on Which? some time ago but can’t find it.

We wrote about digital inheritance on Which? Conversation back in February this year:


It seems as though we ‘rent’ rather than buy digital downloads. Does that seem fair to you?

Katie you say “It seems as though we ‘rent’ rather than buy digital downloads” re the inheritance question you reply to does this mean it is rented for your lifetime.

It’s encouraging to hear that some companies allow you to transfer your downloads to your heirs after you die, but for those companies that don’t, could this be interpreted as age discrimination? Older people would be effectively charged more per year than younger ones.

John M says:
29 November 2012

I never download music. Instead, I buy CDs and rip from them. The big advantage is that I can choose the bitrate and file format to suit the particular player, and the storage available.

Storage is getting much cheaper, so I can rip in lossless format now if I choose.

I am not sure if “rent” is the right term? If I buy an original work – a book, a painting for example – I can sell that to someone else when I choose, but cannot make a copy for myself and keep it. When I die the original work is the property of my estate and passed to whoever – not returned to the original vendor. This is fair.
Why should downloads be treated any differently? In both cases the difficulty lies in policing the making of copies – isn’t it very much easier to copy a music download? If so this is a situation of the vendors’ making – they set up a means of making large revenues and this is a consequential downside isn’t it? The EU ruling seems logical and fair – it is up to the vendors to set up systems to ensure the process is not abused.

I started buying digital downloads from Amazon as they were cheaper than the physical CD, and of course took up no physical storage space. However Amazon have recently revised their pricing policy for mp3s and in some cases the downloaded album is more expensive than the CD. This particularly applies to older re-issues. For example I purchased a downloaded album for £3.99, vs the CD for £10.97 in September, which was a bit saving. However the price of the downloaded album has now increased to a ridiculous £12.99, whilst the CD remains at £10.97. This is not an isolated example, there are lots of instances where the CD is cheaper than the downloaded album.

Many albums can be bought second-hand on auction sites for very little money, once they’ve been out for a few months and gone out of the charts. And if you just wanted an MP3, it doesn’t matter how tatty the second-hand disc is (as long as it’s readable) as you are only using it for ripping. And if you no longer want that music, I think you can legally resell the CD as long as you delete your MP3s.

Hi Rich,
I agree with almost everything that you wrote about, the right to re-sell CDs, the right to re-sell paid-for downloaded music (the download becoming a virtual CD equivalent). What I don’t agree with however, is your implication that you would like to be able to sell your CDs (fair enough), but also your MP3 files, with the implication that this includes the ones you originally burned from those CDs. That conclusion is reached by two or your sentences: “I’ve got a job lot of CDs at home, collecting dust and doing nothing in particular for my eardrums since **I burned them to MP3s** years ago”..and..”Clearing out my old CD collection is still on my to-do list. One day, I’d like the same rights **with my MP3 collection**”. That would be wrong, regardless of the argument being played in court at the moment. If that’s not what you meant, a clarification would be welcome.

Hi William, The simple truth of this situation IMHO is: If you own the CD, lets say Adele’s new album, it’s yours, and you can sell it on if you wish, but don’t copy it first!
If you buy the album as an MP3 download, you can theoretically copy that download a million times, and sell each copy on, as it appears that the US company, ReDigi are trying to tell us. That is surely wrong!
It’s denying the artist their fair share of royalties (many of them don’t even sell in the hundreds!), and the record company, who have to pay for the recording costs in the first place, plus the mass of advertising costs that are involved in the promotion too.
They will not be able to pay for the development of new talent if their products are being ‘pirated’ by companies like ReDigi, and that would be tragic. This situation probably wouldn’t affect groups like U2 etc. but there are a lot of good artists out there who need income to survive. Let’s help them by shutting down anything that is stealing their work!

That’s not how ReDigi works. In fact, it goes to great lengths to make it very difficult for you to do what you describe. First, it checks the MP3 you want to sell for evidence that you bought it legally. Then it uploads it to its server and immediately deletes all copies of the MP3 that you have on your computer (by using the service, you explicitly consent to it doing that.) To me, that sounds like very reasonable measures.

Now there’s nothing to stop you taking a backup of the MP3 first, then running ReDigi, and then restoring the backed up MP3, but if you do that then you are knowingly stealing (it’s the same offence as illegally copying it from the Internet) and it’s not something that ReDigi has in any way encouraged you to do.

I hope that one day, at least in the EU, the courts clarify that the use of such services as ReDigi is legal.

Hi Clint, My apologies for not getting the right slant on the ReDigi process, I agree with you. If this system can be legitimised, the Artists’s won’t suffer as they have from illegal downloads already. Cheers.

Digital downloads are sold in the knowledge that the system is not secure – purchasers can copy. It is up to those who choose to sell through this route to develope more secure methods or continue to take the risk. Presumably it is still a profitable risk for them. You cannot rely on the honesty of the purchaser.

@Malcolm R.: I appreciate what you are saying, but I hope this is not encouraging companies to use draconian DRM policies, as they often severely restrict what you can do with music that you’ve bought. For example, in some cases there may be a limit to how many times you can transfer your music files to a new computer or MP3 player. I would be annoyed if suddenly, having just spent lots of money and purchased a brand new device, I find that I cannot play hundreds of my tracks because they are DRM’d and I’ve already copied them N times. The worst case of DRM I’ve seen is in fact the BBC iPlayer. I often find that it forcibly deletes downloaded programmes before I’ve even had a chance to watch them! The most frustrating thing is that once you start watching a programme, it gets deleted after 7 days. So if you’ve watched 45 minutes of your favourite 1-hour episode and you then get distracted for a week, for example due to work pressures, then if you get back to it, sit down, relax and look forward to watching the last 15 minutes of it… it gets deleted! Not only that, but you’re you’re not allowed to download it to watch it again, ever!

So, while I appreciate the arguments in favour of DRM, I think that on balance, due to the grief that it causes to individuals, it is a bad thing and its use should be avoided.

I was listening to the Podacast about this and there 2 points I like to pick up on.

1) It was said that unlike physical items digital stuff does not degrade and so any resold item, however old, was as good as new. Thereby losing the original producers and retailers the sale of a new item. However the resold digital item will not come with any sort of guarantee, Sale of Goods Act rights or the opportunity to re-download item within a given period in case of loss or corruption.

2) An analogy was made with buying a new car one day and selling it on the next day and that the car manufacturer would not be taking anyone to Court. It was said that this does not often happen anyway. In fact this does happen with online new car sellers and probably car supermarkets. They take orders for new cars and then source the car from the trade at trade prices and sell them on new to the buyer at a profit, yet well below the prevailing retail price.

Cerberus says:
3 December 2012

Make the cost so low that is is not worth selling on

royboy says:
4 December 2012

Always buy the CD! I will say it again, ALWAYS BUY THE CD!
The quality far exceeds MP3, there is just no comparison.
I have been using MP3 for years and always wanted something better.
Here it is FLAC. If you have the digital storage and want a digital copy use FLAC to rip your CD’s.
Store the CD in a box for when you loose all your data on either your hard drive or when the cloud blows away!

Hectare says:
7 December 2012

I agree about the quality, but have you noticed how the availablity of a diversity of CDs is now decreasing? For example, on Amazon many titles are now only available from them as mp3 files, and ‘physical copies’ are not listed for sale at all.
It used to be the case that CDs could also be bought from other (private or business) sellers on the Amazon site, as they were able to add their catalogues to the main Amazon inventory, but now, because there is no Amazon listed CD version on the site, these other sellers cannot list and sell against that one…hope this makes sense….
Conversely, the main mp3 sites do not have many tracks/bands/releases available at all. iTunes is woefully bereft of many classic albums and artists, as is Spotify. So it is not always possible to get what you want in either format despite the belief that with the internet, everything is now for sale somewhere….so good hunting!