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Digital Ownership

I think it would be safe to say that I’ve bought into the whole “digital” thing.  I own a lot of digital music, videos, games, etc.

But do I?

There has been a lot of controversy over the past several years over whether or not you truly own your digital content.  I, like many, many others, rarely read even a paragraph of the giant agreements I have to digitally sign before purchasing content.  I just want the content!  I’m not a lawyer, and frankly my session will probably time out before I’m through reading the document, not to mention that if I don’t agree I won’t be able to purchase said shiny content.

Ah, but you see, many of those agreements state that you are essentially renting the content from the provider.  Oh, you can download and listen/watch/play it as many times as you like, and words like “buy”, “purchase”, and “own” will be used to give you a false sense of security.  But do I really own it?  No.

One of the first times that concept really hit me was when I started listening to a book I “purchased” from Audible.com.  After the generic “This is Audible” opening, the following recording played:

[the author] has asked us to remind you of certain terms of the Audible license that you agreed to when you became a customer of Audible.  Namely, Audible grants you unlimited license to access the content solely for your personal and non-commercial use.  You are not allowed to copy, reproduce, distribute, or use the content in any other manner.  You cannot sell, transfer, lease, mortify, distribute, or publicly perform the Audible content in any manner, nor can you exploit it commercially in any way.

If Audible becomes aware that you have sold or attempted to sell Audible content in any form, your membership will be terminated immediately and you will not be allowed to rejoin or purchase any Audible content.

Thanks for your cooperation.

Now, whether or not the author really asked them to put that in or not is inconsequential, but I for one am glad they did.  Why?  Because it was easy to understand.  All that legal gibberish that I agreed to when I became a customer of Audible I skipped.  But since they knew that they couldn’t take up that long on a audiobook or they’d piss people off, they actually distilled the agreement down to what you needed to know.

And wow.  OK, yeah, some of the stuff is pretty basic and needs to be in there because of copyright law and I completely agree with it.  Don’t copy the content, don’t publicly perform it, etc.  But what is this about not selling the content?  Or transferring it?  Or passing it on to my descendants?   What if I don’t like the audiobook, or am done with it?  How are you going to keep me from…oh, yeah, DRM (Digital Rights Management).  I really can’t, can I?  Not without breaking the law.  But what happens if the company who sells me the product shuts down for whatever reason?  Oh, I lose the content I purchased.  Wow.

So let me get this straight:  basically I paid the full price of buying a physical copy of the audiobook, but the only thing I can do with the digital copy is listen to it, whereas with the physical copy I can listen to it, sell it, give it away, pass it on to my descendents, keep it if the publisher goes bankrupt, etc., etc., and using freely available legitimate software (iTunes), make a digital copy of it for my own personal use?

Umm, is it me, or does something seem wrong here?

So why do I buy things digitally?  Convenience, more than anything, as well as, weirdly, a sense of security.  Why wait for a book to arrive in the mail when I can purchase it digitally in seconds?  Why waste gas to go to the store and purchase a CD (or again, wait for the mail) when it could be downloading in moments?  Why wait for a movie to arrive…  etc., etc.  As for the security part, if I lose my physical copy of something I’m screwed, whereas all the major resellers of digital content that I know allow you to re-download the content again, and again, and again….

But things are changing, at least where I’m concerned.  I’m now opting to purchase things physically over digital, the most notable exception being eBooks since, well, they are eBooks (I really like being able to carry and entire library of books with me that weighs only a few ounces, especially where giant 1,000+ page tomes are concerned).  Oh, and PC games, since it’s actually easier to deal with all the DRM associated with games when you purchase them digitally (you have to deal DRM with PC games whether or not your purchase them physically or digitally).

Why?  Because the content is then mine.  I can do what I want with it.  I can watch a DVD/Blu-ray 100 times and then resell it on eBay, or give it away to a friend.  Or I can loan it out, or take it with me to a friend’s house to watch.  Or I can check to see if the effects of a acetylene torch on a Blu-ray can make it even higher definition (it can’t, I’m just joking).

There is also my primary fear:  that the provider will go under.  OK, so it’s not that likely for the major guys.  The thought that Apple will go under just doesn’t make sense right now.  But what about 10 years from now?  Perhaps they will make terrible business decisions in the meantime, so what happens if they fold in 2022?  Or 2032?  Will I still be able to see that season of Doctor Who I purchased when their DRM servers go down?   No, I know that’s not true, because we weren’t able to watch something we had purchased one night when they were having issues.  Or what happens if they are bought out?  Will they be bought out and everything be fine?  Or will they be bought out and everything is lost?

True, a Blu-ray may not make it to 2022 either, or 2032.  It could get lost, it could get damaged or destroyed, or maybe Blu-ray will go the way of the LaserDisc or beta cassette.  But as long as I have the equipment to play it and the disc is undamaged, I know that it will play.  It won’t require the presence of a company to be able to play (or at least their servers).  I won’t have to remember a username and password for an account opened many years prior.  And perhaps at that time it will be an antique, i.e. something I can sell.  Who knows?  But it will be mine.

Do I really think that physical purchases for music/video/etc. is the answer?  No, I really do like digital.  It just makes sense.  It takes up far less space, is far lighter, you can get it faster, has a higher likelihood of still being playable in some manner 20 years from now, etc., etc.  So what needs to change?  Simple.  Remove DRM.  Get rid of it.

Without the DRM, I don’t have to worry about whether or not the company exists anymore.  There would be no username or password to have to remember.  You could put it on whatever you want, take it wherever you want.  Want to play it at a friend’s house?  Fine!  Want to give it away?  Fine, as long as you don’t keep a copy.  Ah, but there’s the rub.  Trusting people to do the right thing.  Not just copying stuff everywhere, or bumming a copy from a friend.  That’s why DRM is there in the first place, to try and keep people honest.

But the problem is DRM is not working.  Just run some searches on the net.  You will find many articles, some written by quite famous individuals/journalists, which speak of how DRM is not working.  Is it keeping people from pirating stuff?  Nope, not a chance.  It’s not stopping those who are breaking the law, so what is it doing?  Generally, harassing people whoare following the law.  It may just be me, but if it’s not doing what it was intended to do, why is it still out there?  Oh, because somehow they think they can make it better.  Somehow, they think they can make it work.  I don’t think that’s really possible.

OK, this post has gone on long enough.

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