Dystopian future? Who owns digital media and what does this mean for how we engage with it?

More and more of the media we consume is digital, where in the past someone who loves books might have had shelves full of them, nowadays most of those books might be stopped away in a single device, similar for movies and music, it is all being consumed through apps and websites. This raises some questions about ownership and rights to the material. While most of us understand that paying for a Netflix or Spotify account doesn’t mean we own the materials they provide us with, and they work more as a library, the line becomes less obvious when it comes to buying individual ebooks, games or songs? You would assume that this copy is at least yours to keep, like it would be if you were to buy a physical copy, but in reality it’s more complicated than that.

When Microsoft announced that it would discontinue its ebook section of its online stores it also announced that this would mean people would lose access to the books purchased through this platform and any titles they kept stored in the eBook library. In a similar manner, getting your account banned by the moderators of the site you bought the digital media from can also mean you no longer have access to those products, as has been the case for a Rusian gamer who got banned from the game-publishing platform Steam, and as a result lost access to all the games he had purchased on there. The products bought through these platforms such as Microsoft and Steam often cost a similar amount compared to the physical copies, yet in practice consumers actually have less rights than if they were to own the physical copy. as these above examples show, “ownership” of digital media is often restricted to an end user licence agreement, in general these licences mean that people are given permission to consume the product and access it for a certain time period, but the use can not be transferred (you aren’t allowed to lend it out like a physical copy) and other legal restrictions. In many cases people are not actively aware that they don’t actually own these productes as they would a physical copy, but instead have permission to use the product for a while.

In an article on the ethics of digitalisation Lamber Royakker and 3 other academics discuss how digitalisation raised several ethical issues that should be addressed by society, including that digitalisation turns more and more products into a service, where manufactorers and providers can at any moment opt out of providing the service, because the electronic model used might be outdated, or, as mentioned above, because someone breaks the regulations of the website, or because the provider goes out of business, thus the provider remains ownership and can retract access at any time (Royakker, Timmer, Kool, van Erst 2018, 134).

With digital forms of media becoming the more dominant form of media consumption, it also raises questions of the control these corporations have over the media we consume and have access too. Take for example the controversy concerning Amazon, when it deleted editions of Orwel’s 1984 from users their library in 2009 because the retailer did not have the rights to sell them. However, the people who had the books in their library had still paid for it, we can’t be guaranteed that corporations won’t deny us access to certain materials if they do not fit their narrative. To a less serious extend the same applies also to original media, where online media can easily, constantly be updated or changed leading to the disappearance of the original work. This video about a youtuber raises an interesting point about accessing this original work, and how access to media and “our favourite stories” is entirely limited to streaming sites and download services, and they will be able to dictate which version we will be able to read, watch, listen to, or play.

Royakkers, Lambèr, Jelte Timmer, Linda Kool, and Rinie Est. “Societal and Ethical Issues of Digitization.” Ethics and Information Technology 20, no. 2 (2018): 127-42.