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Guest Post: Do We Really Own Our Digital Possessions?

Microsoft has announced that it will close the books category of its digital store. While other software and apps will still be available via the virtual shop front, and on purchasers’ consoles and devices, the closure of the eBook store takes with it customers’ ebook libraries. Any digital books bought through the service – even those bought many years ago – will no longer be readable after July 2019. While the company has promised to provide a full refund for all eBook purchases, this decision raises important questions of ownership.

Digital products such as eBooks and digital music are often seen to liberate consumers from the burdens of ownership. Some academics have heralded the “age of access”, where ownership is no longer important to consumers and will soon become irrelevant.

Recent years have seen the emergence of an array of access-based models in the digital realm. For Spotify and Netflix users, owning films and music has become unimportant as these subscription based services provide greater convenience and increased choice. But while these platforms present themselves clearly as services, with the consumer under no illusion of ownership, for many digital goods this is not the case. So to what extent do we own the digital possessions that we “buy”?

Fragmented ownership rights

The popularity of access-based consumption has obscured the rise of a range of fragmented ownership configurations in the digital realm. These provide the customer with an illusion of ownership while restricting their ownership rights. Companies such as Microsoft and Apple present consumers with the option to “buy” digital products such as eBooks. Consumers often make the understandable assumption that they will have full ownership rights over the products that they pay for, just as they have full ownership rights over the physical books that they buy from their local bookstore.

However, many of these products are subject to end user licence agreements which set out a more complex distribution of ownership rights. These long legal agreements are rarely read by consumers when it comes to products and services online. And even if they do read them, they are unlikely to fully understand the terms.

When purchasing eBooks, the consumer often actually purchases a non-transferable licence to consume the eBook in restricted ways. For instance, they may not be permitted to pass the eBook on to a friend once they have finished reading, as they might do with a physical book. In addition, as we have seen in the case of Microsoft, the company retains the right to revoke access at a later date. These restrictions on consumer ownership are often encoded into digital goods themselves as automated forms of enforcement, meaning that access can be easily withdrawn or modified by the company.

This is not a one-off occurrence. There have been many similar instances that raise questions of ownership. Just last month, social media site MySpace admitted to losing all content uploaded before 2016. Blaming a faulty server migration, the loss includes many years’ worth of music, photos and videos created by consumers.

Last year, after customers complained of films disappearing from Apple iTunes, the company revealed that the only way to guarantee continued access was to download a local copy – which, some opined, goes against the convenience of streaming. Amazon hit the headlines way back in 2009 for remotely erasing “illegally uploaded” copies of George Orwell’s 1984 from consumers’ Kindle e-reading devices, much to consumers’ dismay and anger.

Illusions of ownership

My research has found that many consumers do not consider these possibilities, because they make sense of their digital possessions based on their previous experiences of possessing tangible, physical objects. If our local bookstore closed down, the owner wouldn’t knock on our door demanding to remove previously purchased books from our shelves. So we do not anticipate this scenario in the context of our eBooks. Yet the digital realm presents new threats to ownership that our physical possessions haven’t prepared us for.

Consumers need to become more sensitised to the restrictions on digital ownership. They must be made aware that the “full ownership” they have experienced over most of their physical possessions cannot be taken for granted when purchasing digital products. However, companies also have a responsibility to make these fragmented ownership forms more transparent.

Often there is a logical business reason for such restrictions. For instance, since digital objects are infinitely reproducible – they can be duplicated quickly and easily at negligible costs – restrictions on sharing are a means to protect the profits of both distribution companies (Microsoft or Apple, for example) and media producers (including the authors and publishers of an eBook). However, these restrictions must be stated clearly and in simple terms at the point of purchase, rather than hidden away in the complex legal jargon of end user licence agreements, obscured by the familiar terminology of “buying”.

republished from The Conversation under a CC license
The Conversation

image by basykes via Flickr

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DaveMich April 8, 2019 um 11:01 am

I think there’s an interesting meta consideration that you’re missing, which is that many consumers just don’t care if they 'own' digital content along the same lines as physical content, and that the current models of access are 'good enough' for that.

Consider a book buyer who has shelves of books in their home. They own them. What happens when they die? Most likely, realistically, someone comes in, boxes them up and tries to dispose of them. Unless there is something really special about them, it’s likely that their final value is actually negative.

Digital natives don’t think that books of any kind have enough tertiary value to even worry about. Sure they’re paying for access, and that’s as far as their concerned that’s fine.

Harmon April 8, 2019 um 11:51 am

It seems to me that the ephemeral nature of digital "ownership" is quite obvious to people who have grown up in the digital age. It’s not just content like books, music & movies. Apps disappear all the time. I had a copy of Siri before Apple bought it. It just stopped working. And periodically you have to pay more money to keep a working copy of a program on your computer.

I think we are nearing the end of a transition period in which the older cohort of consumers don’t fully grasp the digital environment, but I’ll bet that the kids – anyone under 45 – understand the situation & take steps to protect themselves where required.

I’ll bet that most people don’t care about such things. They read the ebook once, and that’s it. They watch a movie more than once, but it’s always available somewhere & if not, well, there are other movies. And music of any kind is cheap & available on multiple platforms.

It’s not as if there’s not a similar problem in the analog world. Song of the South has been deep-fixed by Disney (I have my own copy.) Lots of movies are only on VHS, if anywhere. You can only get Sinatra’s Reprise album of South Pacific on vinyl.

As for me, I download copies of anything I want to be sure to have when I need it.

Nate Hoffelder April 8, 2019 um 12:01 pm

I think that anyone who approaches this from the angle of "ownership" misses the point. What matters with digital is possession and control.

If you possess a file but due to DRM do not control it, then it doesn’t matter whether you "own" it or not. If you both possess and control it, ownership is irrelevant.

Eric April 8, 2019 um 12:23 pm

The current shift is from "ownership" to "rental" of goods. When you buy digital content, you aren’t buying it in the traditional sense of the word. You are renting it until such time as the landlord decides you can no longer have it. Then it’s gone and you have to rent it again elsewhere.

The cost to own your digital content is much higher than most people are willing to spend, so renting is all that’s left. To truly own your content, you must first "buy" it online. Then download it locally. That means storage, and if it’s movies, a lot of storage. Now you have to maintain that storage. More time and money spent.

Downloaded content will have some sort of DRM, so you need to remove that as well. That means you need to learn how to find the tools and use them. More time spent.

Formats evolve over time, so you might also need to convent your old content so it plays on new devices.

Now you have your own copy of whatever it was you bought. Want to stream it to your tablet or phone? Read up on Plex or some similar streaming option.

Ownership of your content is still possible, but it’s not as simple as just paying $15 for a new ebook. There is a bunch of hidden cost in "owning" what your purchased. The upside of owning your content is obvious; I can loan my ebook to my wife. Also, when Microsoft decides to pull the plug on my entire library, it doesn’t matter because I have my own copy.

Truly owning your digital content is time consuming and can be fairly technical. Most people don’t care enough, so renting is what’s left.

And in the case of movies, even buying physical copies isn’t safe. Betamax? VHS? Laser disk?

Cole Mak April 8, 2019 um 6:00 pm

When you pay money for an ebook or movie which is encumbered with digital restrictions management (DRM) you are not buying it, you are leasing it. You have no ownership over the product.

I think it deceptive advertising bordering on the criminal that vendors can have buttons that say, "Buy Now!" or the even more convenient, "Buy now with 1-Click®", which implies they are selling you a possession. Those buttons should say, "Lease Now!" or "Rent Now!" which is far more accurate.

John April 8, 2019 um 9:52 pm

It’s an irony that a website called "The Digital Reader" has an interface with two fixed bars, one for "menu bar" at the top and a "social media buttons" at the bottom, making the reading real estate very tiny.

Increase your zoom by pressing CTRL + and the "funnel" effect will get even worse. Only few lines visible.

Maybe it’s on purpose, trying to mimc the experience of reading in a tiny e-reader?

Nate Hoffelder April 8, 2019 um 9:53 pm

the cobbler’s children have no shoes

it is a truism, not a joke

Vicente April 9, 2019 um 11:11 am

If the price is adequate, I don’t mind. But I guess it’s not. So, I don’t feel fine about this business model

Marilynn Byerly April 10, 2019 um 12:23 pm

The true point no one mentions is that you don’t "own" the contents of a paper book. You own the physical object–paper, glue, and ink. The content is never yours. (See the First Sale Doctrine under US Copyright laws.) This means you can’t make a copy of the contents to sell or give away. You can’t make a movie or an audiobook version because you own the paper book. So, if you choose a digital version, instead of paper, you don’t lose what you thought you owned with a paper book.

Sure, it stinks that your copy of a digital book may disappear when the original seller disappears, but that is part of the choice of having a digital rather than a paper copy of the content.

Clyde Burns April 11, 2019 um 1:42 pm

This isn’t the 1st time a company has stopped supporting their electronic books with external dependencies. And is in fact the 2nd time Microsoft has bailed on ebooks. I still have quite a few .lit books from back in the 90’s that took me years to regain access to once the back end DRM support went away. So going back to Microsoft for books was not a mistake I wanted to redo.

I see in the comments that some are of the opinion of just taking what options the sellers / licensors are giving and just going with the flow. I want to say you do have more options than they tell you you have. There are ways of archiving electronic content to survive the inevitable conclusion of a given DRM licensing regime.

just do a search for apprentice alf as starting point for those alternatives. Not saying or advocating you do it. Just be aware they are out there.

Vicente April 14, 2019 um 2:42 am

Nobody bothers about the price? You can’t sell it second hand, can’t lend it, fragile or not possession at all, etc. Huge gains for business…
Are you all Ayn Rand’s disciples?

Nate Hoffelder April 14, 2019 um 2:08 pm

If it’s too expensive I just don’t buy it.

Vicente April 17, 2019 um 9:24 am

Ok, but if all companies charge giant profits, you can’t choose. It’s an oligopoly "de facto" and nobody complaint.

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