Thursday, March 7, 2013

Don't I Own My Stuff?

Do we really own the stuff that we buy?
This is an interesting question, regardless if we're talking about atoms or bits.

When we purchase content like a movie (DVD, VHS, etc), we can resell that product. This ability lead to a huge movie rental business beginning in the 1980s. So, why didn't the same thing happen with software when it used be distributed on cassettes, floppy disks, CDs, or DVDs? The answer is simple - you never really owned the software. Rather it was licensed to you. (After all, who's never noticed the EULA we all click on, usually without reading it, when installing new software?). Part of the license agreement is that the software is nontransferable. 

Although we purchased the software we're installing, we never really owned it anymore than paying for a driver's license gives us the right to own a car. A license only gives us the privilege of using, not owning.

One nice thing about the old days of buying movies or music on disc or tape is that we'd at least have our own copy. We owned the medium, not the content. But, in today's world of downloading content, we don't even own the medium anymore. Throw in digital rights management, better known as DRM, and now access to our purchased content can be impossible if the seller's servers shut down. Imagine if Amazon or Apple went out of business? We'd no longer be able to download our content or authenticate against those servers to enjoy our movies, music, or books. (Realistically, the U.S. Copyright Office, which is part of the Library of Congress, does, from time to time, allow copyright exceptions but it's still a hassle.)

I ran into the problem of no longer having access to my content earlier this week when I tried to download a movie that I had purchased less than a year ago which was stored in the cloud. At first I thought it was a bug, but, in the end, it turned out that the movie was no longer available because its license had been revoked. Now, I no longer had access to, or a copy of, my movie. Live and learn.

Yet, even in the real world, we sometimes don't truly own everything we think we do. Even if you own your home, outright, stop paying your taxes and see who will then own your home.

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