Let’s address that.
A Physical License
When you own a book, what do you actually own? You don’t own the contents; you don’t own the words written inside. The text itself is generally protected by copyright, and is owned by the creator or publisher. You just own the physical object – the pages that hold the tale, not the tale itself.
What about digital files? Well the situation is the same. You probably own the device you’re reading the ebook on, but you don’t own the content you’re reading. Without the constraints of a physical book, publishers need some way of transferring the information to you without transferring ownership of the file. The way they do that is with a licensing agreement.
You never buy a song from iTunes or an ebook from Amazon. – you only buy a license to view the content. It’s not actually much of a change from the way physical products work — in that case, the printed book is simply your license to view the contents in perpetuity.
Growing Up In The Second Golden Age Of Piracy
I’m pretty young – I don’t even know who the fourth member of The Beatles is. For almost my entire life Internet piracy has been rampant. I was 10 when I started downloading music with Napster, and as Internet connections got faster and the technologies developed, I moved on to pirating movies with BitTorrent.
For as long as I’ve been a consumer of media, I’ve been able to find pretty much everything I wanted to watch, read or listen available almost instantly and for free online. Why would I even think about buying CDs or DVDs? It was far simpler to just download the data to my computer.
And I’m not alone with this – all my friends have grown up in a similar situation. Actually owning something physical has no appeal. CDs are just going to be ripped. DVDs are more likely to be watched on a computer than a TV.
And if owning something tangible has no appeal, why would owning a nebulous license for a digital copy?
The Rise Of Streaming
This is why services like Spotify, Netflix and Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited are so great. We get almost all the benefits of piracy — instant access to all the content you could want — without the downsides, all for a reasonable monthly fee. What’s not to love?
Rather than purchasing a one-off license for a single piece of digital content, you subscribe on an ongoing basis to a license that gives you access to a far larger collection of media than you could ever, even in a lifetime, amass on your own.
Last year on Spotify I listened to 34540 minutes of music. That’s almost 24 days non-stop. Let’s say each song was 4 minutes long on average. That means I listened to 8635 tracks. Even if my top 100 songs accounted for 80% of that, it still means I, more than likely, listened to well over 1000 different songs. To buy each of them on iTunes would have cost nearly 10 times what it cost me to use Spotify.
Not only that, but the experience was much better. I was able to find and listen to whatever I wanted without fear of wasting money. If I played a song and didn’t like it, no problem: I just wouldn’t play it again. If I bought an album and didn’t like it… then it’s tough luck.
The same is also true of Netflix. Online movie streaming has killed DVD rentals. For the cost of renting a movie, you can get a full month of Netflix. When compared with buying a DVD the difference is even more stark.
Resistance Is Futile
If you refuse to use digital products on general principle then I don’t think I’ll ever convince you of the merits of streaming services.
Resistance is futile.
— The Borg (@OfficialBorg) April 20, 2011
If, on the other hand, you buy licenses for music from iTunes, you’re already half way there. You don’t own the music. Assuming a file you “buy” comes with DRM, the companies you purchase the licenses from can revoke them at any moment.
Plus, so long as you buy, on average, one album a month off iTunes, Spotify is going to be cheaper in the long run.
Streaming services are getting bigger and bigger. Spotify just passed 60 million users and shows no sign of stopping. Netflix accounts for 35% of US Internet traffic. These services aren’t going away.
The End of Ownership
What it means to “own” a piece of intellectual property has always been a bit nebulous – with digital files, it’s even more so. What we think of as ownership really ended with the rise of services like iTunes and the Kindle Store, which explicitly sell licenses. But now it’s truly dead.
Piracy has bred a generation that expect instant digital access to content. We don’t care about having CDs, books or DVDs lying on a shelf – let alone digital files sitting on a hard drive. We don’t want to own a movie, we just want to watch it.
Image Credit: XKCD.