Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Napster on owning music vs. renting music

Jerry Stratton, August 23, 2005

Napster president Brad Duea is trying to convince music lovers that we’ve been “tricked” by the nefarious Steve Jobs. The problem? We prefer to own our music rather than rent it.

People think of ownership as this ultimate thing with music. Has owning cassettes in the past really benefited people? In many cases they have had to repurchase music in a new format. I do not think the argument about ownership is such a wonderful thing. What do you really want as a music fan? It’s to access music and listening to music.

As a music fan, I’d say that access to music under my own terms is what matters. Renting doesn’t do that for me. The cassette analogy is a good one: I want to own and be able to access my music for a long, long time, but you never can tell when a cassette will stop playing, just as a subscription service can block access to some or all songs for any reason they choose.

Cassettes didn’t work for me because they degrade too quickly. After a decade of owning cassettes and ending up with music I couldn’t listen to, I promised myself never again to buy a format that might not work in the future. I switched to vinyl, and then later to CD. When I download, I download from the iTunes Music Store or from places like MP3tunes.com. I’m not about to switch to a cassette-style model now that I’m downloading music.

Apple’s ownership model promises a vinyl and CD experience. Napster’s rental model promises a cassette experience, and worse. Cassettes only had to worry about physically degrading and getting caught in some cheap car stereo. With Napster’s rental model, Napster and the record companies control what music is available; if a record company chooses to remove a now non-selling tune from the market, or one that they’ve decided they want off the market for any reason, such as a boycott or bad publicity, Napster’s model is that I can no longer listen to it. Apple’s is that I can.

This is the same thing the movie industry tried to pull with DIVX back when DVD started out: impose a rental model and convince people they didn’t “really” want to own their movies, and they wouldn’t mind checking in to a central server to verify they had the right to watch a movie. (Those DIVX disks are coasters today because DIVX is out of business.)

Duea is right that owning music isn’t the point. Listening to it is. Listening to it now, when it is popular, and listening to it two years from now, when it isn’t, and listening to it ten years from now, when the record company finds it expedient to remove access.

Duea says I’ve been “tricked into a hardware trap” for preferring the iTunes/iPod/CD ownership model over the Napster/WMA rental model. I look at it differently. Apple is providing the service that I want, and letting me decide when and where to listen to my music. Other ownership services such as MP3tunes.com do the same. I’ll buy from whoever gives me long-term control--ownership--over the music that I want to listen to. That’s no trick, that’s just common sense.

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