Digital Worth, or the Lack of It

Once upon a time, AVIs and MP3s were things you got on a physical CD that you bought at a physical store, that you drove to, which was hopefully within driving distance. You could only use the CD with the intended program, using whatever player it came with, and only using the computer on which it was installed. An extremely walled garden that only let you play the media under specific conditions. In the 90s, we used programs like Grabber to extract music from a CD. Not strictly legal, but we felt we had a right to do it, considering we had bought the physical media. Still, we had the problem that we had to re-purchase something each time the technology updated. I had 2 copies of the original Star Wars trilogy on VHS (one pan and scan, one letterbox), and 2 sets of DVDs (one extended, one not). I had albums on tape which I repurchased as CDs when my tape deck died. Luckily I didn’t fall for DVD-Audio, since I don’t have a golden ear, and I moved on to the media-less MP3. All of this format change, for a barely noticeable update in quality, is suspect. I don’t like physical media, since it gets lost and damaged and is not easily portable. You try taking 1000 physical albums to a friends house, while I carry 1000 albums on my iPhone. It’s unwieldy.

Now, the Internet is replete with digital media in all corners of our consumption. From movies to TV to music to books to our games, we have more options now to instantly access our consumables than ever before. We can purchase something from many timezones away, watch/read/listen to it, and file it away somewhere that it may or may not be used again, all in the same day. And with hard drive sizes continuing to expand, maintaining a digital music library has gotten easier. And digital music storefronts have solved the problem of buying multiple formats. I love the digital format, but there are challenges to owning digital media.

Comic books, in particular, are a great love of mine. Today came news about a digital comic book service JManga closing its doors, with no way for subscribers to download their digital wares. I feel that those subscribers, who now appear to only have been renting the comics, have been robbed. Comic books they once enjoyed, are gone from their grasp forever. But the appeal of being able to have a small library of reading material on an iPad is very attractive. Where is the middle ground between these two?

As we walk further down the digital path we’ve created on our Internet, monetization has become normal. The MP3 distribution pioneered by companies like Apple, serve to allow you to feed on sound as quickly as your internet connection will allow. But how much is that music you paid for considered “yours?” If you read the terms of service for most of these services, you’ll see that you have almost no rights to transfer these products, whether you are living or dead. The price is usually cheaper than the physical media, which requires a warehouse, a storefront, retail square footage, and distribution channels. All of that requires competition for physical space, where new entries to the market get squeezed out. The digital marketplace allows democratization of what we have access to, and what we can give access to. Sounds good!

In September 2012, news came out that Bruce Willis was upset about not being able to leave his music collection to his kids, upon his death. What could normally have been an unofficial physical transfer of records or tapes or CDs, is now a legal matter. On using the service, he agreed to abide by those terms, but now that the terms are inconvenient, Mr Willis would like to review the legality of this agreement. But why should something that we spent well earned money on, something we transacted for, not be considered our property? Why should Mr Willis have, something owned that has been in his possession, be taken away upon his death? The whole of property law needs to be rewritten to accommodate this new breed of non-tangible entertainment. Part of the trouble is that programs are something that does not exist; they are patterns of magnetic aberrations that a certain other program knows how to interpret. How do you maintain ownership of a pattern, while Happy Birthday is able to do just that?

Under this model we are only renting the media from a company, with no ability to pass it on to someone else after we have died. We joke that we never own anything, that we are only renting. But in reality, real property has a value that can be passed on to someone else. I can buy some CDs or books or BluRays, and will that to someone upon my death. Tangible items are worth something to someone, even as recyclables. Unless companies try to change that, which would definitely give new meaning to “from my cold, dead hands”. Digital media does not have that real quality, unless we choose to give it that value. And I believe we should. As someone who saw a bookshelf of books, movies, and music be destroyed by an angry now-ex-wife, giving value to digital media is appealing.

What’s behind this is, the death of the gray markets, and making sure that there is one copy for everyone that wants an item. All of these items can be physically resold or transferred to someone when we are done with it. But digital content cannot be handled in that way, legally. Steve Jobs did us a great service when he demanded that MP3s from the Apple store be sold without DRM. Services like Overdrive allow books to be loaned by libraries to people who don’t care about owning their own library of books. But Digital Rights Management is what keeps you from giving someone a movie you legally downloaded from a site. You can’t loan someone your copy of a movie because the companies would rather that this other person buy their own. The media is locked to your login and account. I can take a video game and resell it to Game Stop, or put my DVDs up on, but nobody will want to buy an album that they can’t play. This keeps people from trying new things they may not like! All DRM does is screw the legal purchasers.

There is a market for those that only want digital media for a short term, and those that want if forever. While I’m able to pass on my passwords to someone after my death, that digital property is not theirs in name. Services need to offer the ability to transfer ownership or remove data so that it can be passed to someone or something else. While the Google Reader fiasco has me steaming, I applaud Google for allowing users to use Google Takeout to pull the ripcord on the service, while maintaining the integrity of their data – I can take my feed lists out or Google Reader and go elsewhere in OPML format. The rental aspect of digital media needs to be removed. Digital media needs a way to be resigned through a transfer service on the company’s site. Sites like The Pirate Bay exist for a reason. Information wants to be free, and if it is restricted by a wall, it will eventually get over the wall somehow. People wants to make sure they will like an album before they buy it. And statistics show that the entertainment industry has benefitted from file sharing.

There is no wealth in digital media today. Make sure to keep backups of everything. You never know when you or someone else will ever see that media again.