'The End of Ownership': The Digital Industry Wants You to Just Let It Go, Already

Millions of consumers are caught up in the streaming revolution, but what price are we paying in the realm of ownership?

The End of Ownership: Personal Property in the Digital Economy

Publisher: MIT Press
Length: 239 pages
Author: Aaron Perzanowski, Jason Schultz
Publication date: 2016-11

Every month, multiple websites of varying repute publish lists of the television shows and movies being added to and taken off of Netflix for that month. It’s such a widespread internet phenomenon that there must be ample demand for it. Therefore, it becomes a fair question to ask if those who read these lists actually contemplate what they mean.

Not in the obvious sense -- you would be forgiven for skimming over the fact that Gigli was dropped in early November -- but in the greater metaphysical way. What does it mean that these films simply appear and disappear from our access? For those who have wondered this very question, or for those who have yet to realize just how powerful a question it is, Aaron Perzanowski and Jason Schultz address this and myriad deeply relevant questions in their book The End of Ownership: Personal Property in the Digital Economy.

Perzanowski and Schultz, law professors at Case Western Reserve University and New York University, respectively, wrote this book after publishing multiple law journal articles exploring the technical facets of ownership that they discuss in the book. As evinced by their Los Angeles Times op-ed published on 4 November and heavily influenced by the content of this book, they are expert writers in distilling complicated topics and treating acronyms usually reserved for those in the legal community to be handled by interested laymen. Even if you have not bothered to learn the proper name for that mass of legal text to inevitably be blindly clicked “Accept” when you purchase software, you have encountered numerous End User License Agreements (EULAs) in your life. The End of Ownership frames these agreements in the context of real-life relevancy.

As the duo explain in the introduction, “digital retailers insist that ownership depends on the terms of an end user license agreement… Those terms… determine your rights, not the default entitlements of personal property.” What exactly the default entitlements of personal property are is up for as much philosophical as well as legal debate, though the former is discussed only briefly. This is one area in which The End of Ownership would have benefitted -- though the requisite Lockean property theory is brought up, the irony that exists in Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s anarchist rallying cry “Property is theft!” and now seeing that same property literally be stolen from consumers -- as it was not actually theirs in the first place -- is well worth exploring further.

A legal gray area that Perzanowski and Schultz discuss with regards to streaming is the concept of "owning" a copy of a work, as they write in the chapter “Copies, Clouds, and Streams”. “Without copies, under current law, there’s simply nothing to own.” Whether or not you possess a copy of the music when you stream something is not clearly defined, and thus, neither is ownership. “The next major shift in distribution, however, suggests that ownership isn’t important to everyone.”

This is why the work would benefit from a greater philosophical bent: it’s not just that laws are having trouble keeping up with the technological times, it’s that people are willingly forsaking ownership for accessibility and quantity; the question is, why? One answer is that we just don't understand what rights we are or are not giving up with purchases. This is the thesis of the chapter “The ‘Buy Now’ Lie”, where Perzanowski and Schultz look into that ubiquitous button found on virtually every digital marketplace, and conclude, “Applying the basic rules of false and deceptive advertising, the ‘Buy Now’ button looks like an unlawful effort to exploit misinformation.” Much of this misinformation lies in another of the legal acronyms, this time, “DRM”.

“Digital Rights Management (DRM) is the euphemism for a range of technologies implemented by copyright holders, device makers, retailers, and other intermediaries designed to control how, where, when, and whether consumers can use their books, movies, music, and other content.” An example is the too-good-be-true situation when, in 2009, Amazon deleted copies of Michael Radford's film adaptation, Nineteen Eighty-Four, of George Orwell's book, in response to a dispute with a publisher from users’ Kindles. This is the issue with DRMs and digital ownership overall: in addition to the economic implications of DRMs, which the authors get into, the façade of owning things when you actually do not have right of ownership is something that few consumers truly understand.

Thus, it's important for consumers looking to make informed decisions to read The End of Ownership -- not just for the legal and economic trivia you will inevitably pick up, but because of how relevant the book already is and, based on current trends, how even more relevant it will become. As Perzanowski and Schultz warn, “The loss of ownership puts us all at risk of exploitation.” Think about that the next time you wonder why you can’t stream Gigli whenever you want with a Netflix account.


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