The Digital Movies You Buy Aren’t Really Yours

You may find yourself acquiring a larger digital collection than you have in the past as the entertainment business adjusts its distribution strategy to allow customers to buy or rent movies closer to—or simultaneously with—their premiere in theaters. But does a movie you buy from a digital provider like Amazon Prime Video or Vudu truly belong to you? What if you buy a song on iTunes or download one from Spotify to your phone? Are these files permanently yours? What happens if you discontinue the service or, as implausible as it may appear, one of these massive corporations goes out of business?
The answer is a little complicated, but the simple version is that you do not own the digital media files that you buy. This doesn’t mean you’re about to lose every digital movie and TV show you’ve ever purchased due to a megacorp’s whim, but it’s a possibility. Here’s everything you need to know about it.

What does “owning” digital content entail?

What exactly do we mean when we say we own anything digital? Everyone understands—or should understand—that this does not imply that you can then sell, broadcast, or otherwise disseminate that digital thing to others. You don’t have to look far in any terms-of-service agreement to realize that such behavior is expressly prohibited.
For the purposes of this debate, owning a digital file means you can view or listen to it whenever you want, for as long as you can get a device to convert that ancient 4K video file into something that your brand-new holodeck on your space yacht can read.
You still don’t own anything by that definition. Not at all. In most cases, you’re buying a license to watch the video or listen to the song. That license is effective for as long as it truly counts. Let’s face it, let’s be honest: Will you care about the 1080p version you bought on Vudu if an 8K sensurround remake of The Lord of the Rings comes out in 2030?
Take a look at the terms of service for FandangoNow/Vudu, which are very standard. I’ve highlighted the key points.

When you order or view Content and pay any applicable fees, you will be granted a non-exclusive, non-transferable, non-commercial, limited license to access, use and/or view the Content in accordance with any usage rights contained herein and additional terms that may be provided with your devices and/or with such Content (“Usage Rights”).

It’s very normal fare. You can watch the video as many times as you like, but you can’t “sell, rent, lease, distribute, publicly perform or display, broadcast, sublicense, or otherwise convey any right to the Content to any third person,” according to the rules. You’re undoubtedly aware of this: Just because you bought and downloaded a movie doesn’t mean you can burn it to a DVD and sell it—for a variety of reasons, including the fact that you’d have to breach the file’s digital rights management, which is also strictly prohibited. DRM, or digital rights management, allows a firm to limit what you can do with a digital content, such as blocking duplicating or limiting how many times you may watch it.

There’s one more provision under “Viewing Periods” in the FandangoNow/Vudu terms of service worth looking at:

Fandango's authority to provide Content to you is subject to restrictions imposed by the movie studios and other distributors and providers that make Content available to Fandango (“Content Providers”). These Content Providers may designate periods of time when Fandango is prohibited from renting, selling, enabling downloading and/or streaming certain Content to you, including Fandango/Vudu Purchased Content, and you agree that these limitations can limit your Content access.

The line about “include Fandango/Vudu Purchased Content” is the most important. This implies that if Disney, for example, decides it no longer wants Vudu to sell its movies, the corporation can tell Vudu to switch down the service. Although unlikely, the site could conceivably limit access to movies you’ve already paid for—as the rules specify, “[y]our ability to stream or download Content may end if our licenses terminate, modify, or expire.”

Here’s what Amazon has to say about it. The bold emphasis is mine once more:

“Availability of Purchased Digital Content. Purchased Digital Content will generally continue to be available to you for download or streaming from the Service, as applicable, but may become unavailable due to potential content provider licensing restrictions or for other reasons, and Amazon will not be liable to you if Purchased Digital Content becomes unavailable for further download or streaming.

A case involving this is currently being heard in California courts.

For media content sold through Google’s Play store, here’s Google’s version:

Content that you purchase or install will be available to you through Google Play for the period selected by you, in the case of a purchase for a rental period, and in other cases as long as Google has the right to make such Content available to you. In certain cases (for example if Google loses the relevant rights, a service or Content is discontinued, there are critical security issues, or there are breaches of applicable terms or the law), Google may remove from your Device or cease providing you with access to certain Content that you have purchased. For Content sold by Google LLC, you may be given notice of any such removal or cessation, when possible. If you are not able to download a copy of the Content before such removal or cessation, Google may offer you either (a) a replacement of the Content if possible or (b) a full or partial refund of the price of the Content. If Google issues you a refund, the refund shall be your sole remedy.

Interestingly, Google claims that if it deletes your work without your permission, it may offer you a reimbursement.

Is any of this likely to happen? Not at all, as we’ll see in a bit.

Here’s a list of things you don’t have.

You are absolutely, categorically renting some media content. Spotify is a wonderful example in the music industry. You lose access to any files you’ve downloaded to your phone if you cancel your subscription. Your subscription allows you to rent these files rather than buy them. By the way, the music industry adores this arrangement because you’re always paying to listen to the same tunes, albeit for pennies each time. I’ve singled out Spotify, but this is true of all streaming music services—as opposed to download services like iTunes or Amazon Music (see below).

Even if you download content to watch on your mobile device or PC, streaming video is another category where you don’t own anything. If you cancel your Netflix subscription, for example, anything you’ve downloaded is locked out, much like with Spotify. The same can be said about Disney+ Premier Access. Even though you’re paying closer to a purchase price (typically $30), it’s still more of a rental that’s only available as long as your Disney+ subscription is active.

Going a step further, even if you’re merely on vacation, you can be kept out of stuff you could see in your own nation if you travel to another country. A VPN might be able to help by changing your location, but it might not.

So, what exactly does all of this imply?

Despite how much these firms would love for you to buy all your movies again, it’s improbable that any corporation would willingly bomb the presumed assets of millions of customers. The backlash would be severe, and the ensuing lawsuits would most likely take years and cost millions of dollars to settle. The majority of businesses would be hesitant to alienate and anger such a large client base.

That doesn’t rule out the possibility. Take, for example, the squabbles between Roku and Warner or Roku and Google, which are just two of many examples of customers being forced to cope with the aftermath from squabbling firms.

A media corporation going out of business is a more plausible situation. In this instance, the most likely scenario is that another company buys the digital-media section of the company and transfers your right to watch the stuff you purchased. This has already happened with Vudu, which was owned by Walmart for over a decade and is now controlled by Fandango Media, which is owned by NBCUniversal and WarnerMedia, respectively, which are owned by Comcast and AT&T.

However, if you’re still concerned about losing access to your paid stuff, go physical. Companies find it much more difficult to prevent you from watching a physical disc, but this has been attempted in the past. Although digital rights management is embedded into Blu-ray and DVD players and is updated on a regular basis via the internet, if the player is not connected to the internet, it should be able to play any suitable disc format. Some discs also include a code that unlocks a digital copy, which is convenient—though, as we’ve already established, digital versions don’t survive forever (most discs even have a date by which you need to activate the code).

It’s even simpler to use audio. You can still buy CDs, as surprising as it may seem. Once you’ve ripped them to a hard drive, you’ll have digital copies for as long as your hard drive lasts (and presumably, the CD will last even longer). Alternatively, you can purchase and download DRM-free music, which you can then convert to any file format you choose. DRM-free downloads from iTunes and Amazon Music, as well as several smaller music sites that offer even higher-quality audio files, are available. You can usually convert older DRM-protected music downloads to a DRM-free format like FLAC or WAV.

So, no, you don’t own your digital files, and you may conceivably be barred from seeing or listening to them at any time. In reality, your digital collection is probably secure for the time being—but if the thought of a firm locking you out of your movies and music makes you angry, we recommend embracing tangible media like 4K Blu-rays and CDs, which will almost certainly survive any digital-media apocalypse.

You can also try out Reelgood which is an app or service created for people like myself. The Discover view is initially filled with beautiful full-color poster art from current and upcoming theatrical films. You may instantly add those you’re interested in to a Watchlist or mark them as watched with a tap.

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