In 2009, Amazon went into customers’ Kindles and remotely deleted copies of 1984 and Animal Farm bought from the site. The editions of the books sold had copyright issues and should never have been on sale to begin with. But if the customers had bought physical copies from a book shop, the shop wouldn’t have been allowed to break into their homes to retrieve the books, like when publishers tried to recall first editions of Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom last year because they had accidentally printed an early draft full of errors. 

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Amazon can't delete Kindle content at any time...

 
In the case of the Orwell titles, the offending works were removed without permission, and an explanation arrived only after the fact. “I never imagined that Amazon actually had the right, the authority or even the ability to delete something that I had already purchased,” said Charles Slater, one of the customers whose copy of 1984 disappeared. Afterwards, Amazon promised never to do it again, but that doesn’t change the fact that they could if they wanted to. 
 
When you don’t own a physical copy of a product, you don’t really own anything. You’re in possession of pure intellectual property (IP for short) and that IP does not belong to you. It belongs to the license holder and they can legally take it back whenever they wish. Electronic devices like the Kindle, Nook and iPhone are all subject to invasions like the one described above, although it’s an invasion in a moral rather than a legal sense, since Amazon did nothing illegal. 
 
If you have a magazine subscription on your Kindle and you cancel that subscription, you lose all the back issues you paid for. So what did you pay for? You paid for a finite loan agreement that allows you to access the IP on your device as long as the owner continues to agree to the loan. 
 
In order to protect their IP, corporations go to great lengths to restrict the flow of goods.  When libraries started updating their catalogues to e-books, publishing behemoth HarperCollins—a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation—programmed its e-books to delete themselves after the 26th use, which meant libraries would have to keep buying the same titles. Under the terms of purchase, the libraries don’t technically own the books, so the process is completely legal. Reselling your video game or software looks set to become a thing of the past because—no prizes for guessing—you don’t actually own either the software or the video game. You are merely a licensee. 
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Content - the old fashioned way...

Corporations attempt to keep control of digital media by using digital rights management (or DRM), technology used to limit what the consumer can do with downloads. The result has been countless PR disasters like the one involving 1984. Even Bill Gates admitted that DRM has “huge problems” and “causes too much pain for legitimate buyers”. Digital technology is easy to copy and distribute on the internet. DRM intentionally made it harder, but, in doing so it caused headaches for consumers.And it hasn’t worked. Lucian Grainge, the head of Universal and arguably the most powerful man in the music industry, has said that illegal downloading is one of the things that keeps him awake at night. So after a night of tossing and turning, Grainge convinced the UK’s biggest internet service providers to send out warning letters to users who were engaged in illegal file sharing. "The fact of the matter is it is illegal. Piracy is illegal,” he said.
 
The industry is tentatively moving away from DRM. CDs have been DRM-free since 2007 and the iTunes store stopped using DRM for music on major labels in 2009. At the same time the film and music industries’ continue to criminalise millions of people and attempt to instill fear into the illegal downloader. But every time they prosecute a file sharer they look like Goliath crushing an ant for a few extra dollars. 
 
Prosecuting customers gets bad press; but the fact that corporations retain ownership of digital downloads due to the small print is forgotten about because it doesn’t cause problems for consumers on a day-to-day basis. Until a company like Amazon flexes its muscles and removes a file from a Kindle, the consumer remains blissfully unaware of how little control they have of media that was thought to be their own.
 
There is hope for consumers, since the courts could rule against the companies who want to retain ownership of your files and the devices that play them. The courts could strike down user agreements for digital media which amount to a loan rather than a sale, according to Yale law scholar Michael Seringhaus. Since a company like Amazon’s advertising claims to let you ‘buy’ a book, the courts could rule that users have full ownership of the titles they pay for, just like with physical copies. The US Supreme Court ruled against companies trying to retain ownership of IP using new technology in 1908, and it could do again if consumers choose to litigate. However, it’s worth remembering that just as a US court ruled that it was OK for consumers to hack into their iPhone and download apps not authorized by Apple, the company’s response was to implement software that allows them to monitor users’ activities and disable their iPhone if they feel their actions are ‘unauthorized’.  
 
Without a ruling which clarifies that digital media is bought rather than loaned, we face an ominous future that gives corporations ownership of our libraries of books, music and movies. Without the ability to own and share, we run the risk of losing something of value forever. 
 
Text: Wallace Wylie

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