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Book Review: The End of Ownership

Linked by Paul Ciano on June 18, 2017

Kerry Sheehan, EFF:

Ownership, as the authors explain, provides a lot of benefits. Most importantly, ownership of our stuff supports our individual autonomy, defined by the authors as our “sense of self-direction, that our behavior reflects our own preferences and choices rather than the dictates of some external authority.” It lets us choose what we do with the stuff that we buy – we can keep it, lend it, resell it, repair it, give it away, or modify it, without seeking anyone’s permission. Those rights have broader implications for society as a whole – when we can resell our stuff, we enable secondary and resale markets that help disseminate knowledge and technology, support intellectual privacy, and promote competition and user innovation. And they’re critical to the ability of libraries and archives to serve their missions – when a library owns the books or media in its collection, it can lend those books and media almost without restriction, and it generally will do so in a way that safeguards the intellectual privacy of its users.

“In a little more than the decade,” the authors explain, we’ve seen dramatic changes in content distribution, from tangible copies, to digital downloads, to the cloud, and now, increasingly, to subscription services. These technological changes have precipitated corresponding changes in our abilities to own the works in our libraries. While, as the authors explain, copyright law has long relied on the existence of a physical copy to draw the lines between rights holders’ and copy owners’ respective rights, “[e]ach of these shifts in distribution technology has taken us another step away from the copy-centric vision at the heart of copyright law.” Unfortunately, the law hasn’t kept up: “Even as copies escape our possession and disappear from our experience, copyright law continues to insist that without them, we only have the rights copyright holders are kind enough to grant us.”

The authors repeatedly remind us that who makes the decision between what is owned and what is licensed is crucial – both on the individual and societal scale. When we allow companies to define when we can own our stuff, through EULAs or Digital Rights Management, we shift crucially important decisions about how our society should work away from legislatures, courts, and public processes, to private entities with little incentive to serve our interests. And, when we don’t know exactly what we give up when we “buy” digital goods, we’re not making an informed choice. Further, when we opt for mere access over ownership, our choices have broader societal effects. The more we shift to licensing and subscription models, the more it may become harder for those who would rather own their stuff to exercise that option – stores close, companies shift distribution models, and some works disappear from the market.

Paul Ciano

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