The New Yorker raises a concern that a digital product “buy” is really a “lease,” a license to use the content in the platform it was locked to: Amazon, Android, Apple, Windows, Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, etc.
Anyone who has tried to play digital content with regional encodings while traveling internationally has run into problems with this. They don’t own their copy not do they have the right to use it anywhere they want.
An interesting historical perspective does make you wonder about the argument for physical media. Did buying a physical copy of someone’s work entitle you to be able to keep using it? For how long? It depends on the medium.
Each digital distributor is trying to lock in their audience.
A digital format license can get extended to future versions of the platform, if the vendor choses to. They want you to remain a captive audience, to some extent.
If your digital copy of a book, movie or app gets upgraded as part of the license to work with a future software version and piece of hardware, there’s no risk of loss to you. However, it does lock you in to software and/or hardware from that vendor to keep getting access.
Does buying a physical copy of a work come with the expectation to use the product forever?
Any physical media format still requires some form of translation to the audience: books need paper and light (or Braille or audio), and discs, vinyl and tape, all need players.
If your disc player breaks, what are your options?
Even more tragically, if you lose your sight, are you entitled to the Braille or audio copy of the books you have?
You need a translator to change any medium into a message and accessibility to experience it.
Mint condition or rarities from our culture in any medium will have some inherent value to an enthusiast: books, films, music, comics, video games, etc.
It’s probably true that there is no value to an old digital file format.
But what is the value of an 8-track recording without a functioning 8-track player? Did you “buy” that piece of work or simply get a copy that only works on the intended platform with unclear future limitations?
What was my cassette purchase of the Ghostbusters soundtrack entitling me to? That format was hardly archival.
What is the value of an 80s Nintendo GamePak without a functioning Nintendo Entertainment System? Good luck finding one that doesn’t cause you to run through the gamut of techniques to get one to work.
Nintendo offers information on what to do, but it’s certainly more convenient to just buy a new, modern, cleaner digital copy.
Digital distribution is a trade-off for convenience.
Young artists need financial support as quickly as they can get it to continue producing, so getting access to regional audiences through a middle man offering a convenient method of access makes sense.
Unlike physical copies, digital has alternatives. Any creator can offer open-source digital and physical formats through their own website, if they chose to. The real question is determining if a digital vendor has any obligation to inform the audience that there are alternatives.
Is “buy” misleading the public?
When you hit “buy”, do you get access to a copy of a file?
That’s the most important question of digital rights access.
With any proprietary or open format, you need the hardware and software to access the content. As long as you have access to your files to get a copy, which conversion software could empower you to reformat, it doesn’t seem to be any different than yesterday’s proprietary format.
I’d rather download a remastered digital copy of an old cassette than bother recovering a worse quality copy. Nostalgia only has so much value.
Will physical copies of today’s digital content be more valuable if our devices don’t support backwards compatibility? What value will a CD, DVD or Blu-Ray have in 30 years?
There is no guarantee that optical disc readers will always be around.
Funny thing is, handing down old technology unexplained to future generations leads to interesting confusion and guesswork.