Property is theft

Opera Australia performing The Pirates of Penzance, 2007.

If you were to judge just by behavior, you would have to conclude that the entertainment industry’s rights holders are desperate to promote piracy.

The latest instance is that Sony has warned American Playstation owners that shows they purchased – *bought* – from Discovery will, now that Discovery has merged with Warner Brothers, be removed from their video libraries. This isn’t like Netflix losing the license to stream your current favorite show halfway through season 2, which you can maybe fix by joining whichever streaming service the show is now on (assuming there is one). No, this is you (thought you) bought and they took it away.

In other words, the entertainment industry has taken the old anarchist slogan property is theft and turned it into a business model.

This isn’t a one-time occurrence. As Timothy Geigner writes at TechDirt, in 2022 customers in Germany and Austria lost access to hundreds of movies when a deal between Sony and film distributor Studio Canal expired. As in the Warner Brothers/Discovery case, it’s not just that the movies were removed from the list available for purchase; the long, remote arm of Sony reached into individual Playstations and removed them from there, too.

If Warner Brothers sent a minion to come into my house, take a DVD from a shelf, and take it away, that would clearly be theft, even if I had given the company a key so it could come in and update my Blu-Ray player. Why is it different if it’s a digital file held on an electronic device?

This is the kind of question I used to get asked back when these copyright battles were new. “You’re a freelance writer,” said the first person I interviewed on this sort of subject, back in 1991; he was the new head of the Federation Against Software Theft. “You make your living from copyright. Why aren’t you against piracy?” (Or something close to that.)

At the time the big battle in freelance journalism was that publishers were pushing toward all-rights contracts that would let them use whatever we wrote forever without further payment. Freelances were trying to hang onto the old arrangement, under which the publisher just got the right to run the piece once (and *first*), and then the freelance could go on and resell the piece in whole or in part to others and in other markets. Columnists made money by compiling their pieces into books. Magazine writers made money by reselling to other countries or selling reworked versions to specialist publications.

By 1995 you couldn’t really make money that way any more. Today, younger freelances have little idea it was ever possible. This, again, is the future the recent SAG-AFTRA strikes were trying to avoid. The shift is more simply described like this: the old way was pay per use; the new way the studios want is pay once, use forever. This struggle is endemic to every industry, as SAG head Fran Drescher pointed out.

The exact opposite is what’s happening to consumer access. In the old way, because buying physical media conferred ownership of the media (and the fact that the content was only ever licensed was largely moot), consumers bought once and used as much as they wanted until the disc or tape wore out. Even if streaming doesn’t quite open the way for paying for every use (though I bet that’s the hope), it does grant remote control to anyone who has access to the device – even if you thought you only granted permission to put stuff there, not remove it.

If I remember correctly, the first time people realized this kind of power existed was in 2009, when Amazon deleted (irony of ironies) copies of George Orwell’s novel 1984 from thousands of Kindles because the third-party company selling the ebook did not in fact have the rights to it. In this particular case, Amazon did refund the money people had paid. Since then, there’s been a steady trickle of cases where ultimate control of the device stays with its maker and doesn’t transfer to the person who paid to buy it.

You might think that the solution is to go on (or back to) buying the entertainment you love on physical media…but that option is also under threat. Disney announced in July that it would stop selling DVDs and Blu-Ray discs in Australia. In the US, Best buy is about to stop carrying them. Add in the recent trend for deleting even successful shows for tax reasons and the unpredictability of which streaming service might have the thing you’re looking for, and you have an extremely consumer-hostile industry.

For consumers, the perfect service looks something like this: the library is, if not complete, *very* extensive, all indexed in one place, and easily searchable using a simple but effective interface. Downloads are quick and give you a file you can move around, replay, or copy to friends at will. There are no ads. It will play on any device that can play video. Repeated viewings don’t require an Internet connection. *That* is what piracy offers. It’s not that it’s free. It’s that it gives people what they want. And the worse commercial services become, the better piracy looks. If only it paid the artists…

Illustrations: Opera Australia performing The Pirates of Penzance in 2007 (via Wikimedia).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon

Author: Wendy M. Grossman

Covering computers, freedom, and privacy since 1991.

4 thoughts on “Property is theft”

  1. Ha! Finally managed to cancel* my Sky subscription in August. Got home from holiday to discuss my Sky+ box had been disabled, with ally recordings inaccessible.

    *Only by writing a letter, on paper, with a first-class stamp, to the CEO. It was utterly impossible to cancel via the website

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