How Many Digital Files Do We Really Own?


Mobile technology allows us to take and access virtually anything we want, any time we want. But there’s a growing concern about the ‘virtually’ part of that statement, specifically digital versions of the things we purchase.

Some inconveniences have been not only noticed, but are being reported about on blogs and web sites all over the net. As it turns out, the lines between licensing and ownership are quite blurry where it comes to digital incarnations of physical goods.


According to a recent study by all-things-internet-authority Pew, well over fifty percent of internet users have paid to access content in some digital form to the tune of about $47 per month. As society makes even more of a move toward the access and usage of digital content on a mobile basis, these numbers will only increase.

And as more users are accessing that digital content, it is becoming more obvious that the user doesn’t own the digital content they purchase. Rather, they own the license which gives them permission to access the content.

Indeed, this is quite a departure from the physical purchases we make. Imagine being able to only use a roll of toilet paper a certain number of times before your access period has expired. But this is exactly what most of these digital licenses allow us to do. We can view, use and display the content we purchase digitally, but our purchase doesn’t include ‘whenever, wherever’ access for life.

Location, Location, Location

Interestingly, we seem also to be limited by our location where it comes to some digital files. Take, for example, video content which is purchased online. It may not be able to be played anywhere if the device attempting access is outside of a specified location. An example of this may be attempting video access while traveling from one country to another.

But this is not always spelled out clearly in licensing documents, which can mean much indignation on the part of the person who purchased the license, assuming it would follow them where ever they happened to roam.

Transfer of Ownership

In the case of digital music file ownership, even more interesting things are occurring. One television and movie star is in legal contest with a popular digital music service over their refusal to allow the transfer of music collection ownership. In this scenario, it appears that not only are we limited to how we use digital property, but we are also barred from deciding who can own it once we no longer wish to use it ourselves.

Unlike other digital files, it appears that at least one digital music company is spelling out the terms and conditions of using the music it sells to buyers before they purchase. Included in the terms are an outline as to the specific type of usage, how many devices the files can be used on, and how many times a song can be burned to external media like a CD. If you want further permissions, you simply pay more per song.

The Endgame

While those well-versed with digital file technology and its permissions may say that this is simply the natural evolution of things, others dispute this. And these others include those who could be considered to be digital natives, or individuals who were born into computer culture.

The argument lies in the big business view of consumer rights and privacy, two fundamental ingredients of a free society. Those who oppose say that this restriction of when and where, and even how we can access digital files we purchase is just the beginning of a ‘police state’ by which all of our preferences and activities are monitored.

For those against the restrictions, a good idea may be to fully review as much of the license agreement as possible before making a purchase.

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