Digital purchases: Act before it is too late

Digital purchases: Act before it is too late

It is also not unheard of for developers of software to restrict access to their content through Digital Rights Management (DRM) tools.

Digital goods have made life so much easier. We can stream all the TV shows we want with Netflix, read books anywhere using a Kindle, and stream music with Spotify. Though these services offer unparalleled convenience, most of us don’t really read the terms and conditions to figure out what exactly it is that we are getting. 

For instance, when you subscribe to Netflix, you know that you can only watch the shows as long as you are subscribed. With other products, however, the true nature of your purchase is quite murky. You would be surprised to know that when you buy an eBook on Amazon, for example, you don’t really own it.

It would generally seem like you are buying a book when you pay Amazon for it. We go through the same motions as we would for a book from a bookstore. You pick a book, pay money for it, and you get it. Once you walk out of the store, you can do whatever you want with the book and it is forever yours. 

Similarly, when you buy an eBook, it is available offline as long as you need it on all your devices. Surprisingly, however, when you buy an eBook, you don’t really own it and you basically have zero rights. The Amazon Terms of Use clearly mention that what you actually receive is a very limited license to the product. 

This is of particular concern because the provisions of the licensing agreement severely limit your rights. When you pay for a product and expect an experience similar to that of a physical book, it can be jarring when you realise that the product you paid for can be removed from your library with no prior notice or any compensation.  

When you purchase a physical copy of a book, you don’t get a licence to the book but you get the actual copy and full ownership of it is transferred to you. You retain the right to resell, lend, lease or do anything with it as you please. 

When you buy a book on Amazon, however, you cannot give it to your friend, you cannot resell it, and you cannot even read it on a device unless you have the Kindle app. The reason that Amazon is allowed to do all this is because of the licensing model they use. 

This flows from the idea that eBooks are intellectual property rather than goods which are usually sold. Licensing agreements are normally seen in software and intellectual property fields where they are used to give the licensee the right to make use of an IP. 

Licensing makes sense for software because you know that you are getting a single-use install of the product. But for digital products that have an offline counterpart, purchasers expect to fully own the book. There is no reason why an ecosystem cannot be created which allows users to freely use an eBook just like a normal book.

The main argument that is used to justify the licensing model is the protection of copyright holders from unchecked piracy of their products. The fear is even higher in the case of digital goods that can be reproduced and copied rapidly and with negligible cost. Granting ownership to users, the argument goes, would result in illegal activities that would eventually rob the copyright owners of their rightful proceeds. This argument, however, is utter rubbish. 

Whether the content is given to the user under a licence or a transfer of title is done, the user gets virtually unrestricted access to it. The source file can easily be extracted and illegally transmitted across the internet and replicated as is happening presently. 

The same argument could have been made when the printing press was invented as it too allowed the rapid reproduction of content. The mere possibility of fraud cannot be used by a company to dictate how a buyer can use the product. 

Continued restrictions

It is also not unheard of for developers of software to restrict access to their content through Digital Rights Management (DRM) tools. Since it is possible to ensure, through server-side checks and activation requirements, that the acquirer of the licence does not copy it endlessly, there is no point for these continued restrictions.

Corporations would love a world where the consumer does not own anything and are perpetually dependent on them. The move from the traditional one-time-sale model where even software companies used to provide customers with lifetime access to software is now being replaced the Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model where the user pays a monthly fee to access what they need. 

Although this may not seem nefarious right now, this is the first step in ensuring that customers are forced to remain exclusively with one company, which will inevitably lead to large monopolies. It is understandable to licence software, but we would be moving to a very dystopian world if physical goods were also licensed. 

Imagine if companies refused to sell you your furniture, television or car and only allowed you to licence it from them under a one-sided contract! What we really need to do is rethink the traditional model of ownership to include digital goods to ensure that both content creators and consumers are benefitted. 

We need a law regulating the ownership of digital goods along with online sales and transactions for them.

Although the new Consumer Protection Act is quite wide, the law is unclear on digital goods and services and how they are to be regulated. In this, we need to be proactive and act before it is too late.

(The writer is a student of National Law School of India University, Bengaluru)

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