The Backlog

You don't actually own the digital stuff you buy. This book explains why.

In "The End of Ownership," authors Aaron Perzanowski and Jason Schultz show how unsuspecting consumers are losing valuable rights in the digital economy.

The End of Ownership

When you buy a book at a bookstore, you physically own the copy and have complete autonomy to do whatever you want to it. But when you buy a digital copy of the very same title, Kindle technically licenses it to you. If it wants, it can remove it since you don't own the copy, per se. That's the gray area of personal ownership that Perzanowski and Schultz explore in the enraging and revelatory End of Ownership.

United States National Archives / Giphy

It goes without saying that digital goods like streaming services, cloud storage, wearables, digital books, and more, provide people the chance to enjoy a wide variety of features and services. But the tradeoff also involves a certain degree of compromised privacy, technical limits, and user agreements that most of us don't bother to truly grapple with.

Shutterstock

Consider your Fitbit

Perhaps the best example that demonstrates how empty the word "ownership" has become in the digital age is a Fitbit tracker. Yes, you own the physical device, but the data the device records belongs to Fitbit. Even after you delete your account, Fitbit reserves the right to use your data indefinitely.

Shutterstock

21%

The number of Americans who own a smartwatch or fitness tracker.

Pew Research Center

Shutterstock

“When we say that personal property rights are being eroded or eliminated in the digital marketplace, we mean that rights to use, to control, to keep, and to transfer purchases – physical and digital – are being plucked from the bundle of rights purchasers have historically enjoyed and given instead to IP rights holders.”

The End of Ownership

Shutterstock

“That in turn means that those rights holders are given greater control over how each of us consume media, use our devices, interact with our friends and family, spend our money, and live our lives. Cast in these terms, it is clear that there is a looming conflict between the respective rights of consumers and IP rights holders.”

The End of Ownership

Shutterstock

Another example of how personal property (specifically data ownership) became dicey with the shift from analog media to digital media is cloud storage. According to various end-user-agreements, as the End of Ownership astutely points out, companies can maintain access to your data for as long as they need to — even if you're not a fan of the idea. Author Dan Gray discusses the same issue in Data Ownership In The Cloud.

Shutterstock

36

The number of cloud-based services that the average individual uses on a daily basis.

Skyhigh analysis

Shutterstock

$331B

The anticipated revenue the public cloud sector will generate by 2022.

Gartner analysis

Shutterstock

The problem with Digital Rights Management (DRM)

There's a pesky little thing called Digital Rights Management. Through DRM, corporations decide what you can and cannot do with the content you buy from them.

Shutterstock

Companies insist that DRM helps to fight copyright infringement, but critics like Perzanowski and Schultz blast DRM for crushing competition and innovation, and restricting how everyday users interact with technical media like ebooks off Amazon, video games and authentication servers, smartphone apps, and much more.

Shutterstock

“While not nearly as dramatic as flamethrowers and fighting robot dogs, the unilateral right to enforce such restrictions through DRM exerts many of the types of social control [Fahrenheit 451's author Ray Bradbury] feared. Reading, listening, and watching become contingent and surveilled.”

Shutterstock

“That system dramatically shifts power and autonomy away from individuals in favor of retailers and rights holders, allowing for enforcement without anything approaching due process.”

Shutterstock

At the core of End of Ownership, Perzanowski and Schultz warn us about the perils of thinking too optimistically about tradeoffs between services and property rights. But they end on a hopeful and prudential note: more rights for consumers will enable more autonomy and self-direction in the marketplace.

Shutterstock

More autonomy will help people make better and lawful choices when they use digital goods. Technology's purpose, as the authors argue, should be to empower the consumer, not chain them in half-understood arbitrary rules. For this reason alone, the refreshingly straightforward End of Ownership is worth checking out.

Shutterstock

Share