Bruce Willis might be suing Apple UPDATE: But he isn't.

The actor apparently wants to leave his iTunes collection to his four daughters.

The Daily Mail reports the Bruce Willis – he of Die Hard, Pulp Fiction, and, of course, "worst picture of the decade" nominated mega-flop Hudson Hawk fame – is said to be considering legal action against Apple, in order to be able to leave his iTunes collection to his daughters.

Neil Sears writes:

If he succeeds, he could benefit not just himself and his family but the millions who have purchased songs from Apple’s iTunes Store.

Willis has discovered that, like anyone who has bought music online, he does not actually own the tracks but is instead ‘borrowing’ them under a licence.

Most purchasers do not bother to read the details of the terms and conditions they agree to when buying an album but the small print makes it clear that music bought through iTunes should not be passed on to others.

At the risk of being wrong: Willis is not going to win this one.

European courts have been increasingly active in ruling that "first sale doctrine" – which states that exclusive rights to distribution are exhausted after the first sale – holds for digital goods, since a right to use a good for an unlimited period of time, when exchanged for money, is legally indistinguishable from a sale. This was most recently demonstrated when the ECJ declared in July that consumers have a right to resell downloaded software as "used".

US courts, on the other hand, have been far more inclined to treat the licenses under which digital goods are sold as legally enforceable contracts. So, for instance, MDY v Blizzard, a case in which Blizzard Entertainment, the developer of World of Warcraft, sued a manufacturer of cheating software, was found in Blizzard's favour in part because it was held that users are merely licensees, not owners, of the World of Warcraft software.

For Willis to win, he would most likely have to get the contract declared unenforceable, which would have far more wide-ranging effects than merely letting him pass music on to his daughters. For one, it would open the door to used sales of digital media, but it would also severely limit the ability of businesses to control how their digital goods are used. Whether this is a good thing or not depends on whether those businesses then change their offerings. But, as one example, would Adobe continue to sell student editions of their software if first sale doctrine allowed those students to resell the software at will?

Update

We should have known it was too good to be true. The Guardian's Charles Arthur reports that Willis' wife has denied the story, and that the Mail's reporting of it was most likely an uncredited lift from the Sunday Times. But where did the story come from? Arthur writes:

There's an article from Marketwatch, from 23 August, which bears an odd resemblance - but it has no mention of legal challenge. It's all talk about Estates and Wills.

Which brings us to a horrible pause: might it be that someone saw a mention of "Estates and Wills" and thought it was "estates and Willis"?

Erk.

Bruce Willis when he's not suing Apple. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

DebateTech
Show Hide image

Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.