What ‘Ownership’ Means for Digital Media (Hint: Not Much)

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Luke MacGregor / Reuters

The idea of digital media having resale value seems like an odd novelty to me, I have to admit. And it’s not because I doubt that people would want to get some money back for their MP3s of, say, *NSYNC’s No Strings Attached after 10 years of the embarrassing realization of having bought the thing in the first place — everyone knows that Celebrity is the only *NSYNC album worth owning, after all. It’s because I suspect that most people consider digital media as more of an ephemeral concept (“I am buying the experience”) than an actual object that could be transferred, as opposed to simply deleted once it’s outlived its usefulness.

Take iTunes purchases, for example. Those are licensed for a limited number of devices, and as the Terms and Conditions of iTunes state, purchase or rental means agreement that “the iTunes Service and certain iTunes Products include security technology that limits your use of iTunes Products and that, whether or not iTunes Products are limited by security technology, you shall use iTunes Products in compliance with the applicable usage rules established by Apple and its licensors (‘Usage Rules’), and that any other use of the iTunes Products may constitute a copyright infringement.”

(MORE: Pete Townshend Calls iTunes a ‘Digital Vampire’ that Hurts Musicians)

Or Amazon’s MP3 Music Terms of Sale, which explicitly state that you “are not granted any synchronization, public performance, promotional use, commercial sale, resale, reproduction or distribution rights” for what you’ve bought. Amazon also makes this particularly clear: “You do not acquire any ownership rights in the Software or Digital Content as a result of downloading Software or Digital Content.” So that thing you just bought? You don’t actually own it.

But for MP3s, there’s still a file you download and store on your personal device(s). Readers of digital comics using the ComiXology platform (which has an exclusive contract with DC Comics, as well as exclusive content from a number of other high-profile publishers, and powers the official DC, Marvel and IDW apps) have literally had material they’ve bought disappear without warning because of an accidental release being “fixed”; in its defense, the ComiXology Terms of Use is very clear that “Digital Content is licensed, not sold, to you by ComiXology. ComiXology reserves the right to revoke your license to Digital Content at any time for any reason.”

So what, in the end, are you buying when you pay money for digital media? Performance rights, it seems, and little else. That ultimately may be more or less the same as what you were buying before: It’s not as if buying a vinyl album gave you the right to transmit said album, and we’ve already had lawsuits about whether ownership of a DVD gives you the right to stream its content online, after all (spoiler: It doesn’t). But without the ability to easily hold in your hand (and resell) the vehicle said performance is contained in, it feels like much, much less.

MORE: Looking Forward to 2012: The End of Media Ownership

Graeme McMillan is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @Graemem or on Facebook at Facebook/Graeme.McMillan. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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