Here today, gone tomorrow

Did you hear about amazon.com’s stupendous blunder last week? They took back books that people had purchased from them. Seems as though amazon didn’t have the legal rights to sell the book (ironically, it was Orwell’s ‘1984’), so they just went and grabbed it back.

Putting aside visions of jack-booted thugs knocking down your front door and repossessing the goods, the reality is still pretty scary. Amazon used their wireless access to book owners personal property and deleted the Kindle versions of the book. It sets an amazing precedent and raises deep questions of what ‘ownership’ entails in the digital age.

Increasingly we are being faced by a subscription model for digital property. For many this started with Netflix, whereby you pay a monthly fees and can receive and mail back as many DVDs as you care to in a month. Like your local video store, you don’t own the DVD and must return it as soon as you stop paying the monthly subscription fee.

Next were services like Rhapsody and lala, where for another small monthly fee you can listen online to as many of their CDs as meets your fancy. This time, however, you don’t physically own anything. The music streams to your computer over the net. And, again, if you don’t pay your subscription you lose access to the music. A lot like cable.

Apparently, we will soon all be subscribing to our word processing software and the like. With ‘cloud computing’, the increasingly complicated and memory-hogging software will reside on a server somewhere. You won’t own it, but given yet another monthly subscription fee, you will have unlimited use of that software over the net. This will surely make backups, bug-fixes and version updates much, much easier and should be easily accessible by both the good, the bad, and the ugly of the computer world. (Just wait for the screams over Windows 7 and you’ll know what I mean!)

But what happens if your finances hit a bit of a rough spot through no fault of your own (sky fell on your head, rug got pulled out, or your boss just made a bad decision) and you can no longer afford all those subscriptions? Voop. Gone. And nothing to show for it. Just when you need it most (to read up on new skills and emerging trends, to cheer you up at the end of a long day, or to update your resume and bash out a new job application), all your prior investments into books, CDs and DVDs, and information technology will be worth nothing.

I have to wonder if media and technology companies have thought this one through? Sure it makes ‘piracy’ more difficult, since you can’t just lean over the back fence and lend your neighbor the book you just read or your favorite CD of the week. But, it is likely to further the digital divide, creating a class of have’s (those who can afford the myriad monthly fees) and the have not’s. Gone is the model of broadcasting and mutual sharing of costs and benefits, like me helping pay for your kids to go to school or my tax dollars going to support that museum you like.

It wouldn’t surprise me if we see even greater use of bootleg versions or open-source products, like Linux, since there are still many of us who like to hold (and share) what we own. And so I have to wonder if they media companies are, again, shooting themselves in the foot, because if many of us turn to those bootlegs and royalty-free products then they could find themselves with a rapidly declining sales base. Where once they had loyal subscribers they might soon find they have angry, former customers.

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