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Open Question: Digital Ownership vs. Digital Subscriptions

Two tips in Dear Author’s recent post “10 Things Epublishers Should Do for Readers” caught my attention:

1. Eternal Bookshelf. An eternal bookshelf means that every purchase you have bought can be downloaded at any time. Most of the larger etailers have this feature but not all.

2. Mass Downloads. Along with the eternal bookshelf should be the ability to re-download all of your books. This is necessary in the case of a computer crash or some other computer related malfunction.

The focus on ownership is interesting, particularly since the concept of “owning” a digital file is inherently quirky. You can purchase and download books, music, TV shows, movies and software, but the tangible qualities of ownership don’t apply in the digital realm. You don’t categorize your digital movie collection on a DVD shelf and you don’t thumb through a just-purchased ebook.

There’s a weird dichotomy at play here. Many people (myself included) have come to terms with the ambiguous aspects of digital purchases, but a significant portion (again, myself included) gravitate toward digital ownership over digital subscriptions (e.g. the iTunes model vs. the Rhapsody model). The only clear difference between these models is access: purchased files are accessed from your local storage, subscriptions are accessed from a company’s servers. But if your chosen material is available through your chosen device at your chosen time, does ownership really matter?

I’m interested in hearing how members of the TOC Community view the differences between ownership and subscriptions. Here’s a few questions toward that end:

  • Do you purchase digital content and store it on your own devices?
  • Do you expect retailers to allow you to download additional copies of your purchased content?
  • Do you subscribe to digital content?
  • What would it take for you to switch from ownership to subscription?

Please share your thoughts in the comments area.

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Comments: 12

  1. I’m wholly in the “ownership” camp. If I’m going to pay money for a digital artifact, I want it on my local disk. I consider the ability to re-download content that I’ve purchased a nice feature, but not an absolute requirement.

    The only thing that motivates me to subscribe to a service is for reference, for access to things that are, in theory at least, larger than I’d want to download and host myself.

    I just don’t trust providers to do the right thing with data that I’m subscribed to. Suppose I buy an eBook through subscription instead of downloading the bits to my system. What guarantee do I have that the retailer will still be in business in a week, a month, a year, or a decade? Even if they are, what guarantee do I have that they won’t “update” the content in some way that I dislike?

  2. @Norman: I think you hit on the most important part of the subscription equation: trust.

    I’ve developed the *technical* trust to move to subscriptions (I now assume that broadband and reliable devices will be available), but I still don’t trust vendors to deliver the material I want indefinitely. I think in time I’ll probably develop enough trust with one vendor — or an aggregate of vendors — to move to the subscription model. But until I reach that point, I’ll be buying to own.

  3. While beeing solidly pro-ownership I wonder what the notion of “owning” any digital content may mean in the future. I can back up the file, maybe even transfer it between machine, but will it be readable with the next iteration of my operating system/reader software/dedicated ebook reader? A physical book sits in my shelf ’till kingdom come, if neither my kids nor the bookworms get to it.
    But with digital content, I might end up with a collection of zeros and ones…
    Acrobat and XML are fine and so universaly used, that they might well last a long time, but they are ill suited for book design and typography. I expect new formats that address these issues – but they might be shotgun wed to hardware platforms.
    Then there is the problem of changing content, especially with non-fiction books. What is the worth of owning an ebook if twelve editions are published in the span of a year?
    So at the moment I see the future in ebooks in subscription. Even though I dont’t like the idea very much.

  4. > But if your chosen material is available
    > through your chosen device at your chosen time,
    > does ownership really matter?

    well, no, of course not.

    then again, will it still be there tomorrow?
    next year? in 5 years? 10 years? 50 years?

    just how many d.r.m. servers have to be shut off
    before we know the correct answer is “maybe not”.

    and that _totally_and_fundamentally_ changes the
    nature of the question that’s truly being asked.

    and no, it’s not a matter of “trust”, because
    we know — for sure — companies are temporary.
    and “profitability” even more so. (walmart is
    still here, but its d.r.m. servers are leaving.)

    that’s why most people come down for “ownership”,
    so that they _know_ that they have their content.

    sure, they also want their content in the cloud,
    so they can access it from anywhere in the world.
    but hey, that’s not hard to understand. is it?

    and it’s surely not a choice we’re forced to make.
    it can exist on my hard-disk _and_ in the cloud.
    (and according to lockss philosophy, it should.)

    but there’s another question lurking underneath,
    one that might later become even more important.

    that question is about obsolescence of formats,
    and the ability of a format to obstruct access.

    i have a friend who owns a lot of albums. a lot.
    does he “own” the music? or just a ton of vinyl?

    if the text of a book that you buy is trapped in
    a mobipocket file, such that you can’t extract it
    in a form that is useful, do you really “own” it?

    i would say that you do not, not in any way that
    is likely to be _meaningful_ and _useful_ to you.

    especially since we have no guarantee that there
    will always-and-forever be mobipocket viewer-apps.

    what about text that’s trapped in .html markup?
    well, that’s obviously a lot better (because we
    would be in a world of hurt if we were to lose
    capacity to read .html) but not that much better.

    what people _really_ want is the _text_itself_…

    to the extent that they cannot _copy_ that _text_
    into their own documents, they should be unhappy.

    that’s my stance.


  5. I’m definitely in the owning camp as well. Although, strangely, not for all forms of media.

    I prefer to own digital music and books — in a DRM-free format (otherwise they aren’t worth the drive space on the media server). I couldn’t care less about owning *most* digital tv shows or movies. I’m perfectly happy with a subscription model for that type of media.

    Lately I’ve been very happy about reading the LA Times on the Kindle. Newspaper subscriptions are a natural. I suspect I’d feel the same way about magazines, but it also sort of depends on the reading device.

    For me, subscription content is disposable. The content I buy is the content I want to spend more time with.

  6. some content may _seem_ like it could be “disposable”.

    but there might well come a time down the line when you
    _wish_ you could retrieve it… (even if you don’t “own” it.)

    i’ve often wanted to pull up something i _know_ i read
    — somewhere, sometime — in the past, but it’s all just
    stuffed in a messy closet i humorously call “my memory”.


  7. * Do you purchase digital content and store it on your own devices?

    Yes. From multiple sources, on multiple devices including Palm, Symbian s60v3 phones, Blackberries, and one iTouch 2nd ed.

    * Do you expect retailers to allow you to download additional copies of your purchased content?

    Yes. I don’t necessarily expect them to let me download the content in different formats (although that would be nice), but I definitely expect access to my purchases (even if I have backed them up myself).

    * Do you subscribe to digital content?

    Yes. I am a long time Safari subscriber. However, I must say that if I’m really into a book on my bookshelf, I’m likely to buy it in paper as I tend to markup things that I am studying intensely. I have asked Safari to add a highlighting feature in the past, and have attempted to use Diigo bookmarks on some content, but I always seem to wind up going back to paper – despite my Safari subscription.

    * What would it take for you to switch from ownership to subscription?

    Safari is a reference service, and I use it as such. I’m not interested in subscribing to content for my basic reading needs/interests. I’d rather purchase, or check out of the library depending on how important the content is to me.

    When it comes down to it, however, I always wind up buying a paper physical copy of really really important content – whether it’s a favorite novel, or a technical tome I must absorb.

    I use my Safari subscription the way a lawyer might use Lexis Nexis or West Law. This is an appropriate model for reference materials.

    I do not see a market for subscription services to basic content, say, genre novels, dog training manuals, etc. Magazines are a bit different.

    I subscribe to a couple of Magazines that provide both hard copy and/or PDF copies of every issue. This model works, since I can back up the PDF file however I want. Neither subscription makes use of any kind of DRM in the PDFs however. DRM, as it exists today, would not make this subscription model nearly as attractive.

  8. Personally, I don’t care if I own files or have them on a remote server. I’ve become an adopter of Google Docs since I’ve never liked MS Office and I’ve always found OpenOffice clunky and slow. Google docs is actually better than both in that its main currency is HTML, not some proprietary markup. Anything you send in is immediately available as a web page, and the original file that you “own” on your hard drive immediately loses its value, since the new copy is the mutable version, and the old is just a backup in an arcane format. I also use gmail and at one point was concerned that I would never be able to get those emails “out” of gmail, but as Os X Mail eats up 1 and then 2 GB of my hard drive, and gets slower and slower at opening and indexing content, and as the sheer number of emails I “own” grows exponentially, I really don’t care if I ever “own” it as long I can access it. As for the argument that well you just can’t trust Google because you never what a company blah blah blah best interest at heart, etc. — well, I’ve had enough floppy, zip and jazz disks and enough Wordperfect 4 and Frameworks documents in my day to know that whether you “own” the file or not, you don’t ever “own” the format.

  9. @Aaron: “I’ve had enough floppy, zip and jazz disks and enough Wordperfect 4 and Frameworks documents in my day to know that whether you “own” the file or not, you don’t ever “own” the format.”

    I just lost a drive this morning and all that “owned” content has been reclaimed by the Great God of Failed Drives 😉

  10. mac-

    sorry for your loss…


  11. @bowerbird: Thanks 😉

  12. Don’t buy music in digital form. Don’t like all of the bits in it. Sounds like someone’s got MAJOR stutters! Looks like it too in the visual context. My eyes and ears tell me it’s an unhealthy format entirely.