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?