Flimsy digital ownership

Last Christmas I received a voucher from my employer to watch a film of my choice through the Pathé Thuis, the on-demand service of the major cinema chain. I knew we had the app on our smart tv, but with a Netflix subscription I hadn’t got round to check out a service where you have to pay per view. We still have plenty shelf space of dvd’s we seldom watch. The arthouse offering was not bad at all compared to Netflix, and reasonable at 3 to 4 euros a pop.

Apparently Seinfeld is coming to Netflix, but it won’t stay there indefinitely. Friends will clear the way, as rumour has it.

Ever since broadband started to become commonplace in the early 2000s the traditional video rental model was doomed. Netflix anticipated it: their initial model of shipping out discs was a temporary fix until the world had ADSL or cable. The subscription model caters to everybody and is all you can eat. Great, as long as you’re happy with what’s on the menu and all content – except their own productions – has a limited time on their digital shelf. If you really need to be able to watch Terminator 2 whenever you want in the distant future, you buy it.

That’s exactly what Pathé (and Apple TV) lets you do, sometimes for double the standard 48-hour rental charge. What a terrific deal! Imagine getting unlimited lifetime access to your favourite theme park just for the price of two daily tickets. Well, Pathé knows you better than you know yourself. On average you’re not going to rewatch that film more than once, which is why they can give you such a deal. E-book merchants have a similar model. I’ve bought some forty of them over the last years through Kobo, because I’ll feel either stressed or guilty about a ten euro/month subscription. I’d like to say it’s not the money, but honestly iCloud, Dropbox, Photoshop, MS Office and IntelliJ (nerd stuff) add up to fifty a month already. You don’t buy software anymore. You take it out.

I fully understand the revival of vinyl in this light, even with a generation born after the introduction of the cd. People are tactile beings. Who wants to give a bunch of MP3s for a present, or receive it? Digital ownership doesn’t feel yours if the conditions are hidden in legalese that nobody reads. Let me have the files in an open format on my drive and I don’t care if it carries a huge watermark “Licensed to Jasper Sprengers only”. But most e-books come in straightjacketed DRM formats. I doubt whether they will be any useful if Kobo ceases to exist before I leave this earth. It’s even more relevant for the movies you can buy at the Pathé site. What do you actually buy? The right to stream, that’s all.