The End Of Ownership: How Big Companies Are Trying To Turn Everyone Into Renters

from the ok-landlord dept

We’ve talked a lot on Techdirt about the end of ownership, and how companies have increasingly been reaching deep into products that you thought you bought to modify them… or even destroy them. Much of this originated in the copyright space, in which modern copyright law (somewhat ridiculously) gave the power to copyright holders to break products that people had “bought.” Of course, the legacy copyright players like to conveniently change their language on whether or not you’re buying something or simply “licensing” it temporarily based on what’s most convenient (i.e., what makes them the most money) at the time.

Over at the Nation, Maria Bustillos, recently wrote about how legacy companies — especially in the publishing world — are trying to take away the concept of book ownership and only let people rent books. A little over a year ago, picking up an idea first highlighted by law professor Brian Frye, we highlighted how much copyright holders want to be landlords. They don’t want to sell products to you. They want to retain an excessive level of control and power over it — and to make you keep paying for stuff you thought you bought. They want those monopoly rents.

As Bustillos points out, the copyright holders are making things disappear, including “ownership.”

Maybe you?ve noticed how things keep disappearing?or stop working?when you ?buy? them online from big platforms like Netflix and Amazon, Microsoft and Apple. You can watch their movies and use their software and read their books?but only until they decide to pull the plug. You don?t actually own these things?you can only rent them. But the titanic amount of cultural information available at any given moment makes it very easy to let that detail slide. We just move on to the next thing, and the next, without realizing that we don?t?and, increasingly, can?t?own our media for keeps.

And while most of the focus on this space has been around music and movies, it’s happening to books as well:

Unfortunately, today?s mega-publishers and book distributors have glommed on to the notion of ?expiring? media, and they would like to normalize that temporary, YouTube-style notion of a ?library.? That?s why, last summer, four of the world?s largest publishers sued the Internet Archive over its National Emergency Library, a temporary program of the Internet Archive?s Open Library intended to make books available to the millions of students in quarantine during the pandemic. Even though the Internet Archive closed the National Emergency Library in response to the lawsuit, the publishers refused to stand down; what their lawsuit really seeks is the closing of the whole Open Library, and the destruction of its contents. (The suit is ongoing and is expected to resume later this year.) A close reading of the lawsuit indicates that what these publishers are looking to achieve is an end to the private ownership of books?not only for the Internet Archive but for everyone.

Bustillos is trying to help buck this trend. She’s part of a high profile, recently launched publishing cooperative called Brick House. Brick House is releasing a quarterly publication full of art and writing from Brick House members. But, unlike the big publishers, Brick House is happy to actually sell a digital copy to the Internet Archive, just as it would have sold a physical copy.

The book is called the

Brick House Apparent Quarterly (Vol. I), and it?s an archived selection of some of our favorite art and writing from the nine current Brick House publications: Awry, FAQ NYC, Hmm, No Man Is An Island, OlongoAfrica, Popula, Preachy, Sludge, and Tasteful Rude. We sold a digital copy to the Internet Archive?s Open Library, for the same price ($32) as the forthcoming paper copy.

We wanted everyone to be clear on what selling?really selling, not licensing?a digital copy means, so we talked with Harvard copyright adviser, lawyer, and librarian Kyle K. Courtney. The copy of the Brick House book we sold to the Open Library is theirs to keep forever. Even if they should need one day to transfer the book to a different medium (for example, if ebooks were to become obsolete), the Open Library will still own it. The Open Library will always be free to loan the book to their patrons through the magic of Controlled Digital Lending (CDL), whereby one (digital) copy can be loaned to one patron at a time?just like with paper books. Long-established library security systems ensure that a patron can?t just pirate and distribute our digital book. (If the Brick House Apparent Quarterly proves very popular, libraries might need to buy extra copies!) CDL is the legal means by which digital books and paper books are made equal, and every publisher should support its global adoption.

This shouldn’t be seen as radical. However, as we’ve noted, the big publishers have more or less gone to war with libraries over ebooks, jacking up the prices, limiting how often they can be lent out, and demanding “renewal” payments after a certain period of time or number of lends.

And this is incredibly important to culture and the preservation of culture. As Bustillos notes:

As writers and artists whose work has often disappeared from the Internet, we Brick House publishers have a keen appreciation of the importance of archives and libraries. Most books are out of print; most of what has been written has also been forgotten. We don?t want that to happen to our work. And we are acutely alive to the threat of corporate encroachment over the right to access information in a free society. We stand with the Internet Archive?s Brewster Kahle, who said: ?If a publisher maintains control over every reading event, who?s allowed to read it, when are they allowed to read it, if they?re allowed to read it? we are in George Orwell world.?

The big publishers and other large copyright holders always insist that they’re “protecting artists.” That’s almost never the case. They regularly destroy and suppress creativity and art with their abuse of copyright law. Culture shouldn’t have to be rented, especially when the landlords don’t care one bit about the underlying art or cultural impact.

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Comments on “The End Of Ownership: How Big Companies Are Trying To Turn Everyone Into Renters”

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This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Samuel Abram (profile) says:

How much I appreciate the Internet Archive

I think some people here know that I make music. I have a bandcamp page here, but whenever I release music I can license with a creative commons license (I prefer BY-NC), I upload them to the internet archive, where you can find works from me and some of my friends (and people who release their music with a creative commons license, for instance).

It’s a lot better when culture is shared rather than hidden away.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: How much I appreciate the Internet Archive

urph. I read that and what I hear is: "music on the internet archive is sony DMCA bait" (IIRC sony has on a few occasions DMCA-d or sued over content they didn’t actually own).

I’d love for that to just be a passing thought.

Anyhow that’s awesome that you do that. (And if I actually was interested in music/musical culture enough to know what bandcamp is I’d probably be there checking stuff out).

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: The sailboat metaphor

When you use wind to propel the boat, the crew don’t get to feel its cooling effects so much. When fandom requires continued payment, fewer people stay fans even when they want to.

Prince seems to be the go-to example. Prince made tons of work that most people don’t remember. I think a lot of it is mostly unheard.

Anonymous Coward says:

fuck me! didn’t take long for this gem to be put into print here! the even bigger problem is that as this crap always begins in the USA with politicians and judges ALWAYS coming down in favor of companies, it snowballs to other countries! not only will we not own anything anymore, even though we’ll be expected to pay the same amounts as buying when we are only renting, we wont be able to get anything fixed when broken! these same companies will either refuse to fix or take so long, people will get fed up waiting and buy a replacement. think about the ginormous mounds of waste that’ll then exist! but as is usual, no one who’s making a fortune from screwing the public will give a toss about the waste being created!!

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Doesn’t always start in the USA. Doesn’t mean that it isn’t parties in the USA instigating it, though.

Sometimes, to get the US to toe the line, some international agreement is signed (with legislators and the public kept in the dark), which then has to have "enabling legislation created" because "it is (now) required by treaty".

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Well, when it comes to physical property, lending, renting and leasing has a lot going for it;

  • No one-time major outlay for the device you need for limited periods (interim storage, workshop, rental vehicle, etc).
  • Cuts down on waste and pollution – you might need a moving van every now and then but if your local public transport is good you don’t need a personal car.
  • More efficient maintenance and less resources spent fixing things when the same shop caters to massive amounts of devices.

The real problem is that a number of asshat industries full of con men and copyright cultists are trying to apply the same mechanism to information. And the only way to accomplish that is through intrusive corruption of whatever device you own where that information is to be stored.

Hence a massive conflict long established by now; If it’s possible to claim and enforce ownership of information it unavoidably means you can’t really own the physical property it’s connected with. And it curtails your ability to communicate without constant surveillance from those devices.

Copyright is a cancer which gradually erodes and undermines property rights and human rights simply by unavoidably coming into persistent conflicts with them. Information control hasn’t become more palatable just because private entities rather than government makes use of it.

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Rekrul says:

"Dear company, here is my payment. I hereby grant you a limited license to use said payment as you see fit for as long you provide the given product/service to me. I reserve the right to terminate your use of said payment at any time for any reason. In the event of such termination, you will immediately return said payment to me in full."

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Frank Cox (profile) says:

Oxford dictionary has already gone there

Before computers were common, the Oxford Dictionary was available in printed form either as a 20-volume set of standard harcover books or as a single book printed in mouse-print font that even came with its own magnifying glass.

Then computers came along and in addition to or instead of the above you could then buy a CD with the Second Edition dictionary on it.

Then they started an online subscription service that currently costs something like $100 per year.

Then in 2017 they discontinued the Second Edition CD; your choices today are the 20-volume hardcover set or the yearly subscription but for the past four years there has been no way to legally obtain a digital copy of the dictionary from the publisher.

The Third Edition, which may or may not be released in the next few years (there’s no exact schedule announced yet) will be available by monthly subscription only. No printed books will be available. No digital versions.

So the Second Edition is the first, the only and the final edition of the Oxford Dictionary that you can keep on your own computer and use to look up words without having to pay a subscription fee.

And yes, it’s only a dictionary. But the Oxford Dictionary is THE Dictionary. Really. If you’ve never looked at it, you really don’t know what you’ve missed. Citations, history, and usage that you won’t find anywhere else. It ain’t yer grandpa’s Funk and Wagnalls!

Samuel Abram (profile) says:

Re: Oxford dictionary has already gone there

And yes, it’s only a dictionary. But the Oxford Dictionary is THE Dictionary.

While the Oxford Dictionary is excellent in their etymology, I would hesitate to call it the only one that matters, seeing as the American Heritage Dictionary had a definition of "asexual" to mean "lacking interest in sex or sexual intercourse" as far back as the 1990’s and to my knowledge (correct me if I’m wrong, please), the OED still doesn’t have that definition. However, I can’t verify it, considering that the OED is behind a paywall and is free.

Frank Cox (profile) says:

Re: Re: Oxford dictionary has already gone there

asexual, a. Biol.
(əˈsɛksjuːəl)[f. a- prefix 14 + sexual.]
asexual, a. Biol.
a. Not sexual, without sex. In Bot. formerly applied to cryptogams; cf. agamic.
1830: Lindley Nat. Syst. Bot. Introd. 19 “Asexual plants are flowerless.”
1858: Lewes Sea-side Stud. 289 “Reproducing themselves by sexual and asexual methods.”
asexual, a. Biol.
b. In general contexts: without sexuality.
1896: L. Eckenstein Woman under Monasticism ix. 307 “The high estimation of virgin purity..was advocated by the leaders of thought..and..the asexual existence..was extolled as virtue in itself.”
1903: Daily Mail 10 Sept. 2/7 “All doctors will tell you that, athletic or not, women are more asexual than men.”
1928: D. H. Lawrence Let. ? 17 Aug. (1962) 1077, “I feel I’ve shot it [sc. the book] like a bomb against all their false sex and hypocrisy—as my Florentine doctor said, against all their asexual sexuality.”

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
beardsley64 says:

in a world where content can only be rented, it will be stolen

This is a situation that started in the Napster era. It was not justified to claim artists’ work property without permission. But it opened the door for the idea of renting access to art for a fee.

If the market switches to rental only, it creates a condition in which the pressure to steal content becomes enormous. And that’s exactly what will happen. I won’t blame the thieves one bit.

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Ninja (profile) says:

Re: in a world where content can only be rented, it will be stol

First, there’s no thievery involved, merely unauthorized copying. Unless you consider what the companies are doing with their customers when you buy some gadget and they simply kill it when they don’t feel like playing anymore.

Second, long live the pirates.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: in a world where content can only be rented, it will be stol

Something something Copying is not theft.

Theft removes the thing so only the thief has it.
If someone writes slashfic about Dr. Who humping Sherlock Holmes, the estates will claim it was theft… but I checked all of the previous things about Dr. Who and Holmes still exist.
The slashfic might not be everyones taste, but some would enjoy it (some just because it makes the estates sad).

Someone might need to ask the question of why rightsholders have all of these powers upto and including telling you how you can and can not use the things you purchased.
They don’t pay taxes like the rest of us.
They don’t pay to protect their IP, we have to.
They make our lives more difficult & costly to stop pirates, despite it never stopping the pirates and making things worse for paying customers.

At somepoint there was a change in the world.
Appeasing customers isn’t in the top 1000 things corporations care about anymore.
I mean if your ice man was slow & delivering half melted blocks you’d complain & expect better results or maybe get your ice elsewhere.
We have these giant players no longer attached to reality.
They just expect to be paid no matter how shitty their product actually is & to maintain a level of control in the hopes they will someday be able to extract more money when you even think about their IP.

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Anonymous Coward says:

If book-renting ever becomes the more, I will dedicate myself to ripping and uploading books. I don’t care if it’s illegal, it’s the morally correct thing to do.

The Internet Archive is another victim of the relentless assault from the copyright mafia against free knowledge.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

And your access to those ebooks can be revoked by the company from whom you bought the ebooks.

Not always, Project Gutenberg provide free and DRM free ebooks in various formats. Baen and other publishers also sell DRM free ebooks, and many self publishing authors provide fee or DRM free ebooks. Such books can be copied to and read on most modern devices.

Max says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I also insist on being in control over my library of media; the number of movies and ebooks I have around is considerable, yet not a single one of them is under the control of anyone other than me. For movies, this was accomplished via paying for each and every one of a sizable DVD collection – resolution does not mean much to me, and nobody can remove my access (in any format I see fit) to those discs. It would have been the same with books, if only an analogous means existed – but since it does not, it isn’t, and I shall not comment further on that part.

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Anonymous Coward says:

copyright to the GREAT RESET!

by 2030 the elite want you to OWN nothing and be happy about it!
if one where to look outside the box, they would see that the elite are using the PLANdemic to gain wealth, bankrupt the poor,make everything a rental, censor the critics, suppress the truth, remove unfavorable speech,claim the truth is misinformation, and force everyone to get the poison jab! and to think that they wouldn’t have been able to do half of what they are doing now, all started with copyright greed!
WELCOME THE GREAT RESET! where you are suppose to own nothing and be happy about it….

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Huh?

People pay loose with language all the time, and it does make things confusing, especially when grouping things where the chosen verb doesn’t make sense after an and for both clauses.

I believe here, either they made a mistake in saying Netflix at all, or they are lumping in the idea that you are paying for access to something which might suddenly disappear from the Netflix catalogue, or that due to bickering, a Netflix app may suddenly stop working on some hardware.

Don’t know, but yeah it’s a weird inclusion, unexplained.

Anonymous Coward says:

I wonder if the copyright maximalists would love a world where they also get nickel and dimed as much as they do to everyone else on this one. Perhaps we should turn their lives into renting deals. Pay up or die, constantly until they are unable to pay. I wonder if at any point it would dawn on them that rent seeking industries arent the best choice for everything. Prehaps they would begrudgingly admit that ownership is still kinda fundamentally important to individuals as much as it is to them and their vaunted IP.

Anonymous Coward says:

I’ve never put DRM on any of my work nor do I rent it.

Piracy is a nuisance that requires publishers to adapt. Copying steals revenue from publishers but it also rewards those willing to break the law. One way to adapt is the rental/licensing model (which I avoid as I don’t like post-purchase commitments on my end), and another is to find a way to create material profitaby without doing that, or to, pardon the expression, "think harder."

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