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Ownership in the Wireless World

Recently there was a bit of an uproar on the internet when people began reporting that Amazon had deleted the books 1984 and Animal Farm from people’s Amazon Kindle libraries.  This wasn’t the work of some bizarre computer virus, rather this was Amazon’s response to learning that it did not have the proper license to sell those books.  While the purchasers’ money has been refunded, many people say they’ve been violated by Amazon’s intrusion onto their personal property and the deletion of their books.

This action by Amazon, aside from being a Public Relations blunder, raises some very interesting questions about how digital media is viewed, both by the public at large and by the law.  As more and more of our property becomes digital we try and translate our conceptions of physical property into the digital world, but often this translation isn’t as accurate or as helpful as we might, at first, think.

Music and DRM (Digital Rights Management) is an obvious example of how our ideas of ownership are being transformed.  Pre-internet, when you bought music it was generally yours to do with as you please (excluding making bootleg copies for all your friends).  You could make a mixed tape or CD, make a copy for your car and every player in your house, when you were bored of it you could sell it at your garage sale.  Now, record companies are trying to make it quite clear that you are not buying the music, you are merely buying the license to play the music.  With iTunes switch to all DRM-free music earlier this year, however, it’s clear the music industry is still working on creating a business model that is more palatable to consumers that expect stronger ownership rights in their digital media.

Licensing is a business model that makes digital media work in the internet era.  The license is simply a contract where you are buying the right to do something.  The question, of course, is what rights are granted to you and which are maintained by the licensor.  The basic rights a copyright holder maintains under the US Copyright Act are the exclusive rights of:

  • Reproduction
  • Creation of Derivative Works
  • Distribution
  • Public Performance and Display

When many people think of copyright violation they think of peer-to-peer sharing of music or movies, or maybe the bootleg DVD sellers that set up shop on downtown sidewalks.  Chances are, however, that when you bought your license to your digital media the licensor did not assign to you any of his exclusive rights.  And so while the file may be on your computer, you don’t own that file the way you own your refrigerator or your TV.  Instead, you’ve entered into a contractual relationship that allows you to keep that file on your computer, but the extent of your control over that file is completely dictated by the terms of your contract.

What does this licensing structure mean for you?  It means that you will no longer own what you traditionally thought of as your possessions.  It means Amazon can go onto your computer and delete your books without asking because you never owned those books in the first place.  And while accessing your Kindle may have constituted a trespass, you signed that right away when you hit ok on that lengthy contract you didn’t read.

By switching to a licensing based ownership model there are no simple rules for what ownership is.  The transaction costs increase as people now have to create a licensing contract to sell an item, and the consumer has to spend time reading it to truly understand the product they are getting.  Rather than reading a 5 page (or often longer) document every time we agree to something online, these contracts go unread under the assumption that buying a digital file is the same as buying a CD.  This, however is not the case.  Purchasing digital media is more like leasing an apartment than buying groceries.  You have to be wary of what you’re getting into.

There have been attempts to address this problem, however, such as the efforts by to create a small group of generic copyright licenses that allow people to quickly identify which exclusive rights are being maintained by the author.  This system is perhaps most notably used by flickr, a photo sharing site.  While Creative Commons Licensing has been very useful in some contexts, there is still a long way to go to make digital rights easy to understand for the average consumer.

Unfortunately, the extent of ownership for much of your digital property is not easy to determine.  The best advice when you’re purchasing something digitally is to read the contract and find out exactly what you will own once the transaction is complete (e.g., Will you own the right to play the song only on the computer you purchased the song on, or through any media you choose?).  As we transition more and more into a digital-based culture the boundary of digital property rights will grow in importance and should not be confused with notions of ownership that we might be tempted to carry over from the physical world.

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