Music Writers Will All Be Criminals If Universal Music Group Has Its Way

hamburglar.jpgI love the way Universal Music Group is stubbornly trying to hold on to the revenue stream of “lawsuits against anyone who dare cross us.” It’s so cute, isn’t it? Well, those of you out there who have ever been the unwilling recipient of one of UMG’s shittier promo CDs may not think it’s so cute once you realize that the record company is now trying to go after anyone who’s not only sold one of said promos, but tried to be at least a little bit more ethical about flipping stuff they got for free by throwing the unwanted discs in the trash. Those CDs are property of Universal Music Group forever, dammit! And you can bet they’ll come around in 50 years to make sure that you still have that copy of Dreaming Out Loud that has “must be surrendered upon demand” stamped on its front, and if a thorough search of your place doesn’t turn up that CD, you will be in so much trouble.

This revelation came in a brief for summary judgment filed by UMG against Troy Augusto. Augusto (aka Roast Beast Music Collectibles, eBay handle roastbeastmusic) buys collectible promo CDs at used record stores around Los Angeles and resells them on eBay. UMG sued him last year, claiming that the “promotional use only” labels on the CDs mean that UMG owns them forever and that any resale infringes copyright. EFF took Augusto’s case to fight for the proposition that a copyright owner can’t take away a consumer’s first sale rights just by putting a label on a CD (after all, the Supreme Court first recognized the first sale doctrine when a book publisher tried the same thing with a label stating “may not be sold for less than one dollar,” and we’ve seen patent owners trying the same trick on printer cartridges). In other words, EFF believes that if you bought it, or if someone gave it to you, you own it.

UMG seems to think that the “promotional use only” label somehow gives it “eternal ownership” over the CD. While this might make sense to a goblin living in Harry Potter’s world, it’s not the law under the Copyright Act. According to the first sale doctrine, once a copyright owner has parted with ownership of a CD, book, or DVD, whether by sale, gift, or other disposition, they may not control further dispositions of that particular copy (including throwing it away). It’s thanks to the first sale doctrine that libraries can lend books, video rental stores can rent DVDs, and you can give a CD to a friend for their birthday. It’s also the reason you can throw away any CD that you own.

You thought that front-cover stamp was as meaningless as those tags on mattresses, didn’t you? Hey, I did too. Especially given that judging by the racks at the Princeton Record Exchange, UMG has been good at overpressing promos of lousy albums and not so good at policing the resale racks.

UMG says throwing away promo CDs is illegal [EFF via Coolfer]

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  • Anonymous

    If being a blithering idiot was illegal, all record execs at UMG would most certainly be on death row right now.

    And I’m not referring to Death Row Records either…

  • Anonymous

    The music industry is just making itself look worse by fighting the digital revolution.

  • Chris N.

    If I put a second sticker on it that says OTHER STICKER INVALID, do I own it then?

  • iantenna

    i was at a record store in SLO recently and noticed that the dude had sharpied out the “NOT” in “NOT FOR RESALE” on all their old columbia vinyl. i laughed out loud when i saw that, i guess it’s not so funny anymore.

  • GhostOfDuane

    @AustinSoundcheck: seriously. why can’t they just keel over and die already? anything less would be letting the terrorists win.

  • Anonymous

    @GhostOfDuane: Agreed. They never stop looking for ways to get out, but they’re just tightening the noose.

  • Clevertrousers

    Funny, most music writers that I know resemble Grimace, not the Hamburglar… oh, yeah, and UMG is dumb and smelly, etc…

  • davidm

    Hey, I shop at PREX too! You can tell an album is going to be bad when there’s 2 big sections of shrink wrapped promos all together. I always assumed they came from WPRB, but the sheer number of duplicates seems to make that impossible.

  • Empire

    So if I send, like, a million CDs to UMG that say “For promotional use only” and “Must be surrendered upon demand,” then they just have to keep them forever, at their own expense, just in case I ask for them back someday?

    I wonder how much it costs to store a million CDs forever…

  • Captain Wrong

    Looks like someone else has Hypebot in their feeds too. ;)

    Although, to be fair, I first read this on William Paltry’s Copyright blog…back in August of last year.

  • Captain Wrong

    OIC, they just filed now according to the EFF. Still, this started back in August. I thought it was settled law anyway.

  • Chris N.

    I would bet serious money that 90% of the promo CDs in used record shops come from label employees. How does that figure in?

  • revmatty

    @AustinSoundcheck: This has nothing to do with digital distribution and everything to do with controlling copies of physical media they send to radios, reviewers, record store buyers, etc. I ran stores for the Wherehouse chain for about 5 years back when the web was just being created. The labels were hassling used record stores and collectibles dealers back then just the same and using the same arguments unsuccessfully.

    We probably got 100 or so promo CDs a week at the various places I worked (more or less depending on the volume of the store of course) mostly for new artists or lesser known artists they were trying to push. We fairly routinely got memos from one label or another ‘reminding’ us that the promos were ONLY to be used in store play so customers would hear them (which is why you sent us 25 copies of Joe Jackson’s Laughter and Lust, a wildly underrated album in my opinion, so that we could play all 25 copies in the store?). Any other use was ‘illegal’ and we were to return all promos at the end of the promotion period.

    Not that anyone paid attention to those memos, but they did send them out on occasion. And we dropped the promos in a box in the managers office and employees were welcome to take whatever they wanted on a first come first served basis. Oddly enough the Vanilla Ice Live album was still sitting in the box years later when I quit…

  • MrStarhead

    You can tell how an album’s doing by where the promo copies are being sold at Amoeba in LA; if it’s been out less than a year and you can pick up a stack of 15 in the clearance bin, it’s a flop. If the promos are still in the regular bins, it might be doing all right.
    And as an aside, I’ve bought stuff from that Roast Beast guy, and he’s all right. Ships quick and doesn’t screw you on the back end like a lot of eBay types.