What does ownership mean? I own a copy of Pride & Prejudice, which I can read, reread, scan, etc, as long as it lasts. I own a selection of Weezer songs which I have to unlock in iTunes each time I want to listen to them on a different computer. They can only be listened to on up to 5 computers. I own this domain–unless I stop paying for it, at which time it reverts to the ether and become available to anyone. I own this site, unless I stop paying for hosting or my host deletes it. Then I still own the files if I can get them (or have them backed up on my computer).

With digital property becoming so common and useful, ownership has become an entirely different matter than it used to be. Last week, in a delightfully Orwellian move, Amazon reached into peoples’ Kindles and removed Orwell’s books. It turned out that they didn’t have the rights to those books in that context.

Amazon did refund the money, but the move still raises the serious question of whether or not we own what we buy. And when should we own it, or when should companies be able to control how we use it?

What Does It Mean to Own Media?

My take is that once you own something, you own it. For example, I own the entire Buffy series on DVD (found a fantastic sale). If I want to, I should be able to rip the episode “Once More with Feeling” (the musical episode) onto an .avi file to watch on my computer. I should then be able to turn it into an .mp4 for my iPod and rip just the audio part. If I have the equipment, I should even be able to split up the audio file into tracks. Obviously, these might not be as good quality as if I bought the album, but if I want the good tracks, I can buy the soundtrack CD.

Or the Weezer songs should be played whenever and however I feel like it–iPod, iTunes, cd player, etc. I shouldn’t have to unlock them on every work computer I get (since my work computer allows iTunes) and use up my 5 possible uses. iTunes now offers DRM-free songs, but it’s not retroactive. Fortunately the simple (and legal) act of burning them to a CD and then ripping them back to my computer creates new mp3s without the DRM.

Does DRM Even Work?

I know these measures are put in place so that people can’t distribute media over the internet. But it’s the “little people,” the people who are just trying to buy and use media who are the ones getting screwed over. There are plenty of ways to break DRM and people who are determined to do so will do so. Apparently there are ways to get around Kindle‘s DRM and perform backups, though I haven’t looked into them since I don’t have a Kindle.

Amazon argues that since they didn’t have the right to sell it, they were essentially doing a recall. But while they refunded the money, I think that’s Amazon’s job to get straight in the first place. To use the analogy of physical books, if they find out that a printer doesn’t have the rights to a book, Amazon can’t just come into our homes and take the book back. This crosses the line into intrusion and the people it really hurts aren’t the ones that DRM is trying to protect content against in the first place.

Smithee offered his own take on DRM and entertainment over at Consumerism Commentary and while I’m not quite as liberal in my views as he is (or at least I wouldn’t come out and say that on my blog) I can sympathize with some of his points, especially the “already own it in another format” one. I’ll admit that when my Enya CD snapped in half, I ripped someone else’s copy to my computer. I haven’t had to do that since, because I learned the lesson rip nearly all my music immediately upon buying it (or bought in electronic format to begin with) so I have backups.

I’ll Buy Free Content

I’ll end with a comment about media that’s released for free in some form or another. During the writers’ strike, Joss Whedon, his brothers, and a band of actors produced a great internet musical, Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. It was free on a website for a period, then showed up on Hulu. You could buy it cheaply on iTunes and then an inexpensive DVD came out. By the time the DVD came out, I’d seen it a million times on Hulu. I still bought the DVD because I wanted to be able to watch it whenever I wanted.

I also recently became a fan of Amanda Palmer. Her most recent album “Who Killed Amanda Palmer” is available for free online listening at whokilledamandapalmer.com (warning, explicit content). She even has free (and commercial-free!) music videos for most of the tracks. After listening to it for a few days to decide which tracks to buy, I ended up buying the whole mp3 album.

I give those examples to contradict the idea that just because we can have something for free, we won’t pay for it. What I was paying for was being able to listen to her music all the time, on my iPod, in my car, whenever I wanted to. And to listen to it if she takes it down off the website. Same with Doctor Horrible (plus…DVD extras!).

Those of us who consume a lot of media love free, but I think our primary concern is accessibility. Would I buy a Kindle if I had the money for it? I don’t know. I’d hate to buy and use a book, take notes & highlight (which the Kindle can do) only to lose the book and my own notes. If I buy something, I want to be able to use it. Otherwise I’ll just borrow it from the library.

What about you? What do you think you should be able to do with content you’ve purchased? Have you bought things which have been available for free in some limited format or another? Would you pay for something that was free but asked for donations?

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July 26, 2009 at 9:05 am
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August 3, 2009 at 2:44 pm

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Karen July 22, 2009 at 6:58 am

This is an interesting argument. Essentially, you’re paying to borrow digital content. While I’ve paid for music from iTunes, I share your hesitation when it comes to Kindle and digital books. But it’s less about ownership for me and more about being a word nerd and wanting to hold the book in my hands.

I agree with you, though. The idea that they can just take back what people have already bought is crazy. They call it a recall, but I can’t imagine a publisher showing up on my doorstep and demanding my copy of “1984” off my shelf.

Karen’s last blog post: Should we pay off all debt before buying a home?

Frugal Urbanite July 22, 2009 at 8:10 am

I actually do pay for things I could get for free. I’ve been known to watch a few episodes of a show online and then pay for the rest if I really, really love it.

DRM is ridiculous because it only keeps law abiding citizens (and non-techies) from doing what they want with the media they paid for. Most of my computer geeky friends can crack anything they want. Hell I could crack just about anything but I don’t because of Mr’s job.

I’m not buying a Kindle until the DRM issues clear up, I can read .pdf files on it and Amazon no longer has a monopoly on the books for it.

Frugal Urbanite’s last blog post: Still Here

Miranda July 22, 2009 at 9:26 am

I think you make a compelling point: We are really renting the digital entertainment we think we are “buying”. And I agree that we should be able to use it how we want when we buy it. Sort of like how I think that it’s ridiculous that all those movie editing places are forced out of business. If I buy a good movie, and I want to have it edited to remove content, I should be able to find a place to do so.

Miranda’s last blog post: Ben Bernanke Has a Plan to Fight Inflation

Adam July 22, 2009 at 12:30 pm

As someone who receives income via copyrights and royalties, I must speak up on behalf of the creative end of the spectrum. Every copy of media you rip, copy, burn, or otherwise duplicate is a copy of the original not purchased–that is, the artist in question does not receive fair compensation for the new copy. There is a bit of a gray area here–my feeling is generally that as long as the product is only used by the original purchaser, no harm no foul. However, it is far too common that people share and exchange media with no additional compensation to the creators.
Imagine if your income depended upon revenue from advertising on this blog. What if someone loved the content so much that they copied each post to their own page so others could read it. Or printed off copies to distribute with a newsletter. Now there would be more readers, but no additional income generation.
The point is that creators of media have a legitimate interest in the use and duplication of that media. That said, the law hasn’t caught up with technology, nor have production companies made clear and consistent policies about use and duplication.

CindyS July 22, 2009 at 2:58 pm

I can certainly see Adam’s point but then again, I have also copied cds to my computer or burned a back up copy because I have had them scratched beyond repair. I would certainly be upset if Amazon sold me something and then took it back and informed me afterwards. It would feel like a personal invasion. It’s not like a publisher showing up at your door and asking for your book back, it’s more like them breaking into your house and taking it back. Oh, and leaving you a note that they were there.

Keith Morris July 22, 2009 at 3:03 pm

I have mixed feelings on this topic. I understand the need for creative people to get paid, but I think the industry is a bit spoiled by the concept of intellectual property. If a furniture-maker builds a coffee-table, he only gets to sell it once. At the same time, people pay a lot more for a piece of furniture than they do for an mp3.

Nevertheless, I tend to agree that if you pay for a movie, you should be able to view that movie on whatever platform you choose. Fortunately, competition is driving more producers to support open standards and to drop DRM, especially in the music industry. As the digital literature industry matures, I’m sure it will follow suit.

Squawkfox July 22, 2009 at 3:19 pm

I own a copy of Pride & Prejudice too. But just the A&E version. There, I said it. 😀

Squawkfox July 22, 2009 at 3:21 pm

Ohh, and I don’t buy anything with DRM. So no, I would never buy a Kindle.

Funny about Money July 25, 2009 at 9:28 am

Yesterday I heard a discussion on NPR about this, in which a point was made that this flap is one reason print books and magazines should not be allowed to go away.

Most observers think that eventually all content will be delivered digitally, and everyone one will own something like a Kindle, downloading books and periodicals from vendors such as Amazon.com.

The issue is that when you download digital content, you own nothing physical. A book is not “yours”; it’s essentially rented, and what is rented doesn’t reside in the device you hold in your hands. The vendor–or other outside parties, such as a government that decides it doesn’t want people to read something–can take it away from you with the push of a button.

If the verboten message is distributed in print books, it’s a lot harder to get it back. It’s relatively easy (though not impossible) for a government or corporate entity to interdict publication of print content, but once it’s in people’s hands, it’s very hard to get it back. They can’t come into your house and rifle through your bookcases to remove something they don’t want you to read (well, they can, but in this country it’s unlikely, at least for the time being).

But the present Amazon episode demonstrates chillingly that anyone with enough money and influence can, indeed, do the electronic equivalent of just that.

Buy books, my friends. Real, live books.

Funny about Money July 25, 2009 at 9:29 am

oops… I meant to write relatively easy (though not always simple)…

Every writer needs an editor. 😉

mrsmicah July 26, 2009 at 8:48 pm

@Karen, indeed. Nobody’s going to take your physical book away from you. You may not be allowed to photocopy it and use it for a class, but you’re able to physically copy it for your own use and to keep it as long as it lasts. I’m also a bit of a geek about physical books…but I’ll probably own an e-reader someday, just not until I can buy rather than rent.

@Frugal Urbanite, I think it’s amazing how successful people have been sometimes with the free release model. And, as you say, DRM only stops the digitally-impaired and very strictly law-abiding. For everyone else, it’s just a hassle.

@Miranda, I thought that whole editing scandal about 10 years ago was a travesty. Maybe that’s because my dad actually fuzzed over a couple risque bits in an otherwise awesome movie we loved as kids. So I was used to the concept…and I love the idea of the Phantom Edit–Phantom Menace sans Jar Jar.

If I’m going to fast-forward/chapter skip scenes anyway, I might as well edit the tape and just get it over with. I do think people should buy the original copy before they can get it edited.

@Adam some good points. I won’t be photocopying your hymnal to distribute at church (and I have this feeling that you’d probably notice). My feeling about formats is that when it’s for your own use with whatever tools you’re able to use, it’s all fair. Exchange, as you say, is another matter.

@CindyS I think backups for personal use are always legitimate. I normally burn duplicate CDs for the car just because car use is so hard on them.

@Keith I expect we’ll see some changes in the industry in the next couple years. I hope it moves in the right direction!

@Squawkfox lol! I do love me the A&E Pride & Prejudice. Colin Firth..mmm.

@Funny amen! I love my real physical books. And I think the power of the printing press does a lot for freedom of thought. The internet and e-materials in general are another great medium–but we need both. E-materials can be deleted, books can be burned.

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