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Getting Comfortable With Paying for the Right to Consume 18 November 2011

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Random Thoughts, Uncategorized.
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On Wednesday, a tweet from Books on the Radio and subsequently a Facebook discussion drew my attention to an article titled “RIAA claims you do not own your iTunes music purchases“.

Well, no, of course you don’t, and you probably don’t own your ebooks either. Didn’t everyone know that?

Any time the consumption of content is dependent for access on a proprietary system or service, ownership is impossible. If your music files are (legally) playable only on iTunes, or if your ebooks are (legally) readable only on an app or product from Amazon or Apple or wherever you bought them, you don’t have the free title implied by the word “own”. Your privilege to consume the media you’ve purchased can be withdrawn if the content seller ever decides to block or close your account, and the fine print gives them the right to do just that.

Buying digital media in any proprietary format is essentially the same as paying for access to any other digital content — playing a MMORPG such as World of Warcraft, watching movies through Netflix, etc. — the only difference is that, instead of paying a monthly access fee for the privilege of accessing the content, music and ebooks are often (though not always) accessed on a per-item payment basis. And based on what I’ve seen, no one seems overly troubled about not “owning” the contents of Netflix or WoW. No one expects to be able to keep on accessing the contents and benefits of those sites after cancelling their subscriptions.

This suggests that as a society of digital content consumers, we are getting comfortable with the concept of paying for the right to consume it without needing to own it.

Still, we seem to have a bit of a problem when it comes to ebooks and digital music.

Could it be that we still think of “books” and “music” as physical objects? After all, the idea of a book or a CD/cassette/LP as an “ownable” item is pretty much ingrained in us.

I remember my uncle giving me a paperback copy of Dragonflight for Christmas about a million years ago (I was probably about thirteen or fourteen, not sure now) — I still have it, a little bit dogeared and more than a little bit loved, and with it goes the memory of that Christmas and the thrill of discovering a new favourite author. I have an equally cherished old paperback Signet Classics edition of Romeo and Juliet that accompanied me on many kayak camping adventures with my father, as one of our rituals after making camp for the night was to read Shakespeare aloud. And I have an ancient audio cassette of Servant’s Caught in the Act of Loving Him, given to me by a boy named Caleb from my swimming class in the summer of 1984 — his parents were in the band — I’ve often wondered what happened to him. I could go on, listing dozens if not hundreds of other cherished books and tapes, and later CDs, that I’ve gathered over the years, each one tied to a special memory or associated with some place or time or holiday or event in my life. Many are signed by the author, or inscribed by the gift giver with date and occasion.

The point is, we form attachments to physical objects.

Readers have never owned the content of printed books either. Listeners have never owned the songs they’ve played. That’s what copyright is all about, and those little messages saying all rights reserved and no part of this publication may be reproduced, etc.

But we were accustomed to owning the physical representation of the creative material, and inherent in that ownership was a lack of limitation as to how we could treat it — not the content but the physical form in which it was purchased. No amount of legal wrangling can really prevent people from doing as they please with material objects that they own, whether that’s buying and selling, or lending and sharing, or giving as gifts and hoarding as treasures. The physical packaging of creative material hovers between two worlds, since it blends the right to access and consume the creative content (a permanent, indefinite license for as long as the item survives in a consumable form) with the ownership of a physical object (with all the marketplace value and sentimental attachment that implies).

Ebooks and digital music have no physical representation. There’s no object to be owned, and nothing to which you can form an attachment — one digital copy of a text or music file is generally indistinguishable from another, so it’s impossible to feel sentimental about a particular collection of bytes. There’s no rational difference between access to an ebook and access to a sweet apartment in Second Life; both are content that one entity can licence the use of from another entity, under whatever terms both parties can agree on. As long as that works for you, embrace the digital age. Just don’t assume that you “own” anything.

If the first part of the problem forms when we expect to have some form of ownership of ebooks and digital music, because we’re conditioned by the past to expect ownership of “books” and “music”, the second part of the problem forms when content vendors present the licence to consume as “ownership”. Netflix and WoW don’t pretend anywhere along the line that you own anything; it’s clear to everyone right from the top that the subscription involves access and consumption, not ownership. But sellers of ebooks and digital music know that on some level we expect to “own” our books and music, so words like “licence for personal use” and “access to content” (and the limitations around that licencing and access) are not placed front and centre but tucked away, nowhere near the “buy it now” button.

Going forward, I think that consumers of digital content are going to develop an increased understanding of what it is that we are buying — that our comfort level with paying for the right to access and consume digital media is bound to grow as it becomes more and more the norm. I also hope sellers of digital content are going to support that comfort level by being honest about what it is that they’re selling, rather than playing on our physical-object possession impulses.

For myself, when I want to own a book, I will buy it in hard copy — preferably as objectively lovely an edition as possible (I personally tend to favour foil-stamped clothbound hardcovers with beautiful dustjackets and nice quality creme pages), preferably from a bricks-and-mortar independent bookstore — and whenever possible I will have it signed by the author. I will ask people who give me print books as gifts to incribe them with the date and occasion, and I will remember and value the giver and the occasion whenever I re-read the book. I will embrace my object-possession impulses.

On the other hand, when I just want to read something, I’ll go and browse my favourite digital content stores and, if I see something I like at a reasonable price for access and consumption, I’ll go right ahead and pay to download it, without expecting “ownership”. I can live with an indefinite long-term rental.

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