Who owns your iTunes? Bruce Willis probably doesn't care (Updated)

Bruce Willis versus Apple -- this time, it's personal. Is he Moonlighting as a legal Hudson Hawk who refuses to let his digital media rights Die Hard? (I'm so sorry about that.)

Update: Noted by TechCrunch, Willis's wife Emma Heming-Willis has now said on Twitter that the report of his potential legal action vs. Apple is "not a true story." As we mentioned, when it comes to the British tabloids and celebrity coverage... well, let's just say I had a bit of a Sixth Sense about this tale. (Really, really sorry.)

Let's frame this story by noting that it's a holiday weekend in the US, and perhaps the relative calm before the news storm of a major political convention and some anticipated Apple product announcements is giving tech and legal reporters some coverage latitude. Also, the sources for the Willis story (UK tabloids The Daily Mail & The Sun) are not always 100% accurate when it comes to celebrity coverage, or indeed about anything else. Nevertheless, the issues raised are current and challenging.

Willis is supposedly considering legal action, among other remedies, to ensure that he can include his large iTunes media collection among the assets of his estate when he dies. His three daughters (Rumer, Scout and Tallulah), the beneficiaries of the estate, would then have full rights to thousands of songs, movies and more. Unfortunately, under the current T&C covering iTunes purchases, it's not clear whether that's allowed.

When you buy a song from iTunes, the music comes along with certain conditions for its use. (Technically you are in fact purchasing the song, or "iTunes Products" as the terms have it, rather than licensing it; both Venture Beat and The Next Web are citing a part of the T&C discussing a "nontransferable license," but that covers iOS or Mac apps, not music.) Specifically, you are allowed to listen to the song for your own personal, non-commercial use; you are also limited in the number of devices you can use your music with (up to five), among other constraints. The key here is that the devices have to be under your personal control; otherwise you'd be permitted to put songs on your friends' iPods, which is contrary to the rules.

When Willis passes on, hopefully many years hence, obviously he can no longer "personally control" said devices. While the current T&C doesn't say anything about transferring music, Apple support will not help users merge, split or transfer iTunes accounts. In theory, then, his estate would be stuck. Similar issues are already cropping up in divorce cases, where ownership of the digital assets has to be considered in settlement discussions.

[Also worth noting: while Apple is far from alone in having digital property challenges, the company is restrained in how much latitude it can give end users because it in turn has rights agreements with the record labels, movie studios etc. Even if Apple wanted to give free and easy transfers to account holders, the original content owners might balk. --MR]

In practice, though, there are some workarounds to these challenges. One would be to change the account/payment information on Willis's iTunes to give control of the digital assets to a trust in his daughters' names, although that's a lot of aggravation for the payoff -- he would still need a way to share the tunes between his kids (multiple iPods engraved with Dad's bald, menacing scowl?) without running afoul of the iTunes rules. The question of transferability is one that really hasn't been settled yet for Apple's digital products, or for that matter on Amazon or Barnes & Noble's e-book stores.

The other, simpler approach Willis could take is iTunes Plus. Apple's DRM-free version of the iTunes music library is covered by terms that are noticeably looser and more flexible than the traditional iTunes library. The CYA sentence in question is "You may copy, store, and burn iTunes Plus Products as reasonably necessary for personal, noncommercial use." Depending on whether "personal use" can include "personally passing on my assets to my heirs," a library full of iTunes Plus tracks could be handed off alongside the family silver and the rights to Quentin Tarantino's career.

Whether or not Willis pursues a course through the courts, the issue of digital asset ownership is one that isn't going away anytime soon.

Thanks Michael G.

[Photo by Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons]