Digital film purchases, why your movies can be taken away, and some thoughts

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A new court filing in America confirms that your digital film library might not be as secure as you’d like to assume – a few thoughts.

If you go back to the days of VHS, you might recall that tapes tended to start with a message. Pretty much all of us wound past it of course, but this told you that you weren’t allowed to put on a public display of a film, or show it on oil rigs (a curious exemption, but it always seemed to be there), that sort of thing. In essence, you were being told the what you bought with a video was the rights to watch the film, not the film itself.

That said, two mitigating factors. Firstly, none of this stopped movie studios advertising films as ‘available to own’. Furthermore whilst nominally we all had a licence to watch films, I can’t recall ever hearing of an incident when Universal Pictures knocked down my door and told me my licence to watch Back To The Future was up, and they wanted the video I’d bought back.


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With physical media, this was all straightforward. You bought a video, Laserdisc, HD DVD, DVD, Blu-ray, UMD, or 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, and you owned the film. Nobody in their right mind – although it’d be fun to see this tested in court – believed they actually owned the film rights to Highlander II when they bought a copy of the film. Conversely, the assumption was always once you’d bought it, it was yours to watch forever.

In the digital era? It’s not that straightforward. Last year, the digital video service Flixster closed its doors. That left people who had legally bought digital copies of films being told in the UK that they had to transfer their purchases to Google Play instead. Oh, and because rights had changed on some of the films in question, a small proportion of movies were unable to be moved across. If you weren’t willing to badger customer services, you lost access to the films you’d legally acquired.

Understandably then, when it comes to purchasing digital films, most of us tend now to migrate to bigger players in the market. The ones who aren’t going to go out of business anytime soon, and take access to the films we’ve bought with us. As such, companies such as Apple, Google and Amazon are now the clear market leaders. They’re perceived to be more secure and trustable.

Over in America then, there’s the story of Amanda Caudel. She’s a resident of California who took a look deep into the terms and conditions of Amazon’s Prime Video service. What she discovered was that even though she’d bought digital copies of films via Amazon, that should Amazon lose the rights to sell said films, her access to the film concerned would potentially be revoked. This hadn’t actually happened to the films Caudel has purchased then or since, but she was suitably unimpressed at the prospect of this that she filed suit in the United States District Court.

To be clear, such terms and conditions aren’t exclusive to Amazon, and they’re reflected across its competitors too.

The story has bubbled up this week though because Amazon has sought to dismiss the case. And there are lines in its filing to the Court of particular interest. Its no doubt low cost lawyers write that “the possibility that certain content might become unavailable is explicitly disclosed as part of terms of use repeatedly and conspicuously presented to consumers who buy content on Amazon Prime Video”.

Amazon notes that you don’t have to have read the terms and conditions of purchase that appear to be bound by them (true, and after all, what proportion of the buying public ever does?), but also it sort of doubles down on the point that Caudel was making.

Its filing reads that “the most relevant agreement here—the Prime Video Terms of Use—is presented to consumers every time they buy digital content on Amazon Prime Video. These Terms of Use expressly state that purchasers obtain only a limited license to view video content and that purchased content may become unavailable due to provider license restriction or other reasons”.

In short: you don’t own it.

Should, however unlikely, Disney have a massive falling out with Amazon and ultimately end its agreements with the company, then it would in the future be able to pull all of its films from the service. As such, in an extreme circumstance, access to digitally purchased movies could be revoked.

Now it’s a bit of a hypothetical, that. It wouldn’t be in Amazon or Disney’s interests for that to happen, and whatever you think of Amazon, it does tend to bend over backwards where its customer service is concerned. If you lose access to, I don’t know, Geostorm at some point in the future, you’re likely to be compensated somehow for your considerable loss.

Furthermore, this is all a bit of an extension of that warning on videos and DVDs. That you don’t own the film, you’re paying for the right to watch it, and steady on if you’re taking it to an oil rig.

Nonetheless, the language still points to films available to ‘buy’ digital versions of films on Amazon’s site. I don’t think it’s unreasonable – however complex the legalese – for someone to assume that if they buy something rather than rent it, they own it permanently

More to the point here, at the very least they own a licence to watch the film permanently and irrevocably. What this Amazon filing confirms is that’s absolutely not the case. You can read the filing yourself, but I wonder how many copies of digital films Amazon would flog if instead of the button saying ‘buy’, it said ‘purchase a limited license to view video content and that purchased content may become unavailable due to provider license restriction or other reasons”.

My hunch is that sales may go down.

The parallel with physical media is slightly different too. That should a licence be revoked following the sale of a film’s physical copy, I go back to the point that nobody has knocked at the door to get it back. The difference in the digital world is this has happened. Very, very rarely, but it’s happened.

It’s happened with Amazon itself in fact via its Kindle book service. Again, it’s an incredibly rare case, but back in 2009 – and you couldn’t make this up – book versions of 1984 by George Orwell were wiped from Kindle devices remotely after they’ve been purchased. Amazon refunded everyone, but again, it was a stark reminder of who ultimately owns what, and who has the rights to remove things you think you’d bought.

This new case is the latest clarification. I can’t imagine Amanda Caudel is going to be hugely successful in her legal battle, but the worst she’s achieved here is to re-raise the point that no matter what price you’ve paid for it, you never own a digital version of a film. That some boardroom politics somewhere else on the planet can trigger access to certain films being revoked, and us end consumers are utterly powerless to do anything about it.

Say what you like about physical media, but even though it may be less in vogue, it’s permanence remains a rather compelling feature of it…

Images: BigStock


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