Digital Ownership: why you don't own the content you buy

Digital Ownership: why you don't own the content you buy


Tuesday, September 25, 2012 | Kerry Butters

In this ever-increasing age of digital content, much is bandied around about Intellectual Property, with the prime concern being that of illegally downloaded content; but what about paid-for digital content?

Recent reports that US actor Bruce Willis is taking Apple to court over his ‘ownership’ of his extensive music collection, which he allegedly wanted to bequeath to his kids when he died, have been disproven. The Die Hard star has no such intentions, according to tweets from his wife as reported by CNET earlier this month; however, it does open up a whole can of worms on digital ownership.

Say you are a book lover, you’ve spent many years and wads of cash improving your collection and want to give it away as a gift, lend a book to a pal or leave it to a relative in the event of your death. You just do it, right?

Not so with eBooks though. As it stands, any digital content, including eBooks, music and movies is, strictly speaking, not yours, you don’t own it, you’ve just paid for the privilege of being able to read/listen to/watch it.

This is of course due to outdated, draconian laws no longer suited to the world we live in which were initially created to protect creative types from people copying their work. However, whilst the rights of the creative industry have to be protected, the law as it stands stifles innovation for internet-based businesses.

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The 2011 Hargreaves report supports this, with the author himself stating that: "IP law must adapt to change. Digital communications technology involves routine copying of text, images and data, meaning that copyright law has started to act as a regulatory barrier to the creation of certain kinds of new, internet based businesses.”

Of course, this is all very well on a professional level, but what about on a personal – should we have the right to retain purchases we have made digitally to do with as we wish. It’s a thorny issue.

On the one hand, we hand over cash for an eBook, it’s ours in our own minds, but to the author it could be a different story. Producing a book in this format means that it’s potentially open to being distributed for free, reducing royalties for the author and meaning they’re out of pocket.

However, it also means that ownership has become a whole lot fuzzier than it used to be. If you don’t have a physical product in your hands, then how can you own it? Sticking with the example of books, whilst not many people would go to the trouble of physically copying a book in order to redistribute it, they would and do lend, sell or even throw away books with no worries about breaking the law.

The same with music and movies, unless you physically buy a DVD/CD, it’s not yours to do with as you wish.

There are ways around this of course, make and keep a hard copy (not always the easiest thing to do with some formats, especially with cloud storage now being used by companies such as Amazon), but then you will be breaking the law.

The Hargreaves report recognises the need for change when it comes to IP, but it also allows for the fact that the creative industries need a certain level of protection. Indeed, the report points out that data surrounding illegal downloads in the UK is often scarce and contradictory.

Whilst the review considered using a similar approach to the USA with regard to copyright, it concluded that the model would not be feasible in the EU. The solution to this would be to permit copying "to enable EU copyright law to accommodate future technological change where it does not threaten copyright owners. This would permit copying where it does not trade on the underlying creative and expressive purpose on which traditional rights holders in music, publishing, film and television rely.”

It goes on to say that current copyright law "cannot be considered fit for the digital age when millions of citizens are in daily breach of copyright, simply for shifting a piece of music or video from one device to another”.

As the law stands, normal people are automatically criminalised if they copy, lend or sell digital content that they believe belongs to them. The idea that ownership of eBooks, digital music and video dies with us is one that’s untenable to most people and as such, the laws surrounding digital ownership and IP need a complete overhaul.

This is something which remains under review; a solution needs to be found which suits society as well as copyright holders. Illegal downloads aside, several recent business models such as Spotify and Netflix have proven that people are willing and do pay for content, now it should be addressed as to how they can effectively own that content without infringing on the rights of the creators.

This is something that is being dealt with in the software market, according to Doug Belshaw, who states that once a piece of software or game has been purchased once, by one person, it is then their property.

He cites an EU ruling made earlier this year in which it was decided that once a license for software had been purchased, it can then be resold onto a third party who would pay the person who downloaded the software, in a similar way in which you would resell a second-hand book.

This means that the distribution company only receives cash for that one copy of the software, just as a publisher would only receive on payment for each copy of a paperback book.

The ruling, alongside the Hargreaves Report, is encouraging; with an eye to the future, the law needs to change to adapt to the times and it seems that steps are being taken to ensure that can happen. This will protect consumer rights as well as those of the creative industry and whilst it’s unlikely to come into being in the short term, it looks likely that in the future people will be able to own the content that they pay for.
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