Strong opinions, weakly held

Amazon MP3 tracks don’t include watermarks

J Alex Halderman notes that MP3s downloaded from Amazon.com do not include watermarks that tie the files to the customer who downloaded them. That’s an important difference from the DRM-free tracks available from the iTunes Music Store. Here are the downsides of watermarking:

Individualized watermarks give purchasers an incentive not to share the files they buy, or so the theory goes, but, like DRM, even if watermarking does reduce copyright infringement, that doesn’t necessarily mean it makes business sense. Watermarks create legal risks even for customers who don’t engage in file sharing, because the files might still become publicly available due to software misconfigurations or other security breaches. These risks add to the effective cost of buying music for legitimate purchasers, who will buy less as a result.


  1. I really don’t understand the arguments against watermarking, they allow all the rights that you used to have with physical purchased medium (lending to friends, transcoding, live play, backing up) with a super light weight reputation based system to enforce the current common sense about appropriate usage.

    I’m all for building a more rational system for incenting artists but as long as we’re buying from the major record lables we’ve actively choosing to participate in their old economy and watermarking seems like the least of evils.

    What am I missing?

  2. kellan,

    What would happen if your laptop was stolen and the theif decided to upload all your music? Well, guess whose watermark is on those tracks? Eventually, you’ll be able to clear yourself with the police report but how many times do you think you’ll have to go to court to do it?

    Or how about a less sinister example, where your wife/gf/whomever decides to clean out the junk and find an old 1st gen iPod they are just gonna get rid of at a yard sale for $10. Unfortunately, they no next to nothing about such stuff and sell it with the full library of watermarked info on it. The kid that bought it starts sharing all those “golden oldies” with his friends who upload it to Naplimebeartorrent 6.5 and before you know it the RIAA sues you for 3,000 copyright violations. After all, it’s your watermark and you sold the kid that music!

    The point of the article is that with the purchase of a personally identifiable copy of a song, you are accepting liability for where that song ends up (even if it is no fault of your own). While you may be able to avoid a harmful judgment, there will be legal action if that file gets into the wild. There is no other reason to watermark other than to hold someone accountable.

  3. IANAL, but wouldn’t the first sale doctrine apply to the used iPod situation? Or does first sale only apply to print media?

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