What happens to ownership as the world goes digital?

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The launch of Amazon’s new “lending library” feature through its Kindle devices this week means that another form of content or media — namely books — is becoming something that we rent or stream, Netflix-style, rather than owning a physical copy of. There are plenty of reasons to prefer renting or streaming over actual physical goods: It’s often cheaper, and you don’t have to lug around heavy books or CDs or DVDs everywhere, since your content is (theoretically at least) available anywhere. But there are also downsides to renting content; moving to a rental model changes our relationship to that content, and not always in a good way.

Fortune  writer J.P. Mangalindan wrote about his concerns over Amazon’s new lending feature, which the web giant launched as part of the Amazon Prime program, available only to users of Kindle or Kindle Fire readers and tablets (i.e., not available to users of Kindle apps on other devices such as the iPhone or iPad). As I wrote in my post on the launch, one of the biggest issues with the lending program from a reader’s perspective is that none of the big six publishers are involved — presumably because they are afraid of piracy and/or eating into their sales of traditional books and e-books.

But Mangalindan writes about how the lending library makes him uneasy as a consumer because it means “relinquishing ownership over the content [we] consume” and turning it into a rental model. It’s the same thing Spotify and other streaming-music services such as Pandora or Rdio have done to music, and the same kind of transformation that Netflix has brought to the world of videos: a transformation that has become so widespread that the service single-handedly drove real-world competitor Blockbuster into bankruptcy. And it’s the pervasive availability of high-speed Internet access that has helped to turn both of these services into fairly mainstream offerings.

Why own physical objects when you can stream?

In the not-so-distant past, many people thought that someday we would all have giant servers inside our houses, where we would store the gigabytes and even terabytes of movies, music, photos and other content we either buy or create — and many people I know have either bought or built their own home-media servers to do exactly that. I have one myself, attached to my television. But as I look at all of the hundreds of movies and thousands of songs on it, I wonder whether it makes any sense any more to own that data, when I can stream much of it over the Internet fairly cheaply through a variety of services.

Obviously, music has existed in streaming form ever since radio was invented — but streaming services like Spotify extend that model to the point where we can now use this for all of our music needs, not just when we happen to be near a radio or in the car. And TV has always been “streaming” in a sense, but Hulu and other services have freed it from a specific box or device and made it much more free in a lot of ways, just as Netflix has done for movies, which we used to rent in physical form or watch in a theatre. I used to have hundreds of DVDs that I bought because I thought I wanted a big library of them to keep, but I don’t buy them any more — hardly anyone does.

Now Amazon has brought this kind of model to the book business. While we have had libraries for centuries where we could “rent” physical books — and have always been able to borrow them from friends — Amazon has taken that idea and extended it to theoretically any book, at any time (although you currently only get access to one a month in the new lending library, and you can’t lend them to other people). Will we someday look back on those who keep bookshelves full of physical books in their homes as cranks or weirdos? I wonder. We certainly look that way at people who keep old newspapers, because that seems bizarre — why are books any different?

Renting changes our legal rights as well

Apart from our simple human need to own and collect physical objects, however, there’s also the way that renting changes our legal relationship to the content we are consuming. Amazon has shown the downsides of this in the past by actually deleting copies of e-books from people’s Kindles remotely after a complaint by the rightsholder — and those were copies that people had actually bought, not rented. One of the reasons I argued that a “Netflix for books” made sense was that it would at least make it clear to people that they didn’t actually own the books they were buying, but only a short-term license to use them.

That kind of behavior could become more common as we move to a streaming, rental-style model for all content. Netflix has run into trouble by changing the terms of its service in order to promote streaming at the expense of physical DVD rental — but what is to stop it or Amazon from altering the terms of the contract that allows you access to the content that you listen to or watch or read? Amazon was quite happy to remove access to documents that were hosted on its platform by WikiLeaks, even though the organization had not been charged with nor convicted of any crime. What if companies decide you no longer have the right to watch certain TV shows or read certain books?

Like many services that are enabled by always-on connectivity, rental or streaming of content such as books, movies and music has a lot of potential benefits: It can save money and be more convenient, and it can free us from having to worry about where the content is. But at the same time, it also removes certain rights and abilities that we’ve grown used to — just as renting a home instead of owning does — and that is something we are all going to have to learn more about as the world becomes increasingly digital.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Olaf Gradin, Arlington National Laboratory and Dave Matheson

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