Just what do we own these days?

A woman trying to sell shampoo on eBay has been told she cannot do so. She is apparently buying hair care products from a store or wholesaler and then selling the products on eBay, but the hair care firm Aquage says, "No." The firm is using the flimiest of pretexts, claiming copyright infringement because the woman took a picture of the shampoo and posted it as part of the eBay listing. They also claim she has violated distributor agreements, even though she has never signed any such agreements.

This is first cousin to the often absurd requirements that the entertainment industry has been trying to impose on digital media like music and videos. Except in this case, we are talking about a real, physical product (a bottle of shampoo). The company seems to be trying to assert that the woman, even though she bought and paid for the product, has to get permission from the company before she can resell it to someone else.

Companies that try to assert continuing "rights" over products that they sell are not, in my opinion, going to prosper over the long term. Pursuing such legal strategies suggests that the company's products are overpriced, that the firm has antiquated distribution strategies, and/or that the firm thinks it is a good idea to alienate customers by suing them.

It is no accident that the iPod and the iTunes Store has captured the majority of the market for online music. Most competitors have tried "rent the music" schemes that don't let music lovers own the music that they pay for. Apple, on the other hand, developed a system that provides some digital rights management but in a way that assures that when you buy a song, you really do own it, instead of just being allowed to listen to it for a while. It's a simple concept, really, but one that seems to escape many companies.

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