Saturday, April 6, 2013

Can you own a digital purchase?

IMG_4227 by Jemimus, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by Jemimus

If I buy a book, a music CD or a DVD movie I own it and when I get tired of it I am free to sell it to someone else. This principle of ownership seems simple enough but in the digital world it suddenly ceases to apply. An article by Dan Gillmor in the Guardian, In our digital world you don't own stuff, you just license it, describes a recent American court ruling against a start-up, ReDigi, who proposed to start a market for people to resell digital music.

"Had the users of the startup, ReDigi, been selling used CDs via any number of online stores, there would have been no issue. But the music in this case was stored in computer files, so the doctrine of "first sale" – your right to resell what you've bought – didn't apply.

ReDigi tried hard to live up to the spirit of copyright law. It created a system where the uploader of a "purchased" iTunes song would lose access to the music after the file was transferred to the new "buyer's" computer. Yeah, right, said the record company and the judge – there's no way to ensure that the "seller" wasn't keeping the song anyway."

The same problem applies to e-books, e-magazines and all types of digital content. Because it's so easy to make perfect digital copies the companies argue that you can't really own digital content, simply the right to access it yourself and that right is not transferable. Many libraries have encountered difficulties in lending e-books and often have to pay considerable sums to be able to lend such content.

June Breivik points out another absurdity with digital content in a post about how e-books are often much more expensive than the printed equivalent (blog post in Norwegian).

Is the high price some kind of compensation for the fact that once bought the content may be copied? The ruling against ReDigi would suggest that we need to rethink our principle of ownership when it comes to digital products and that you merely pay for the right to borrow rather than own. Many digital content services are subscription based and if you stop paying the subscription your content is no longer available.

But if I pay money for something that I don't really own and do not have the right to resell, the price for this service should logically be much lower than the purchase of the physical equivalent which include reselling rights? It seems that the content companies are still uncomfortable with digital formats and are applying an analogue business model that doesn't quite fit. I don't have the answer but new models are needed to avoid absurd examples like the above.

1 comment:

  1. True! The e-version are often more expensive, and you cannot re-sell or even (easily) let someone borrow it. Frustrating, and stupid: a friend just sent me a digital version of a brand new book, that I guess have been "cracked".
    The ways to fight that would be a price more appropriate regarding printing and distribution, and either the opportunity to "trade back" or re-sell, or a big reduction of the original price.