Apple demonstrates how complex it is to own digital content

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iTunes 12.6 makes it easy to watch rented movies on any device.
iTunes 12.6 makes it easy to watch rented movies on any device.
Photo: Apple

Purchased digital content has been around since before the launch of the iTunes Store back in 2003, but things were much different then. Devices weren’t constantly connected, and streaming wasn’t the primary way to access your “purchased” (or subscription) content, and most things came in the form of physical media (VHS tapes, DVDs, CDs, or 8-Tracks). Now that things are streamed, stored in the cloud, and available across all our devices, digital content ownership is much more complicated than simply buying a movie, book, or album and having it indefinitely.

A post on Twitter recently made the rounds when Anders G da Silva (@drandersgs) discovered that three separate movies disappeared from his iTunes library. After contacting Apple, he learned that the “content provider” of the movies had removed their content from the Canada iTunes Store. This meant that the movies, living on Apple’s servers, were no longer available to him – something Apple warns is possible about in their 7000-word terms and conditions.

This isn’t the only time this has happened in the modern era. Small changes like album or movie artwork have seen changes throughout the years on iTunes content. Kindle Books have received “updates” to correct mistakes or make minor adjustments. The drawback of pulling everything from the cloud is that nothing is permanent.

Back in the days of yore, when you purchased content (books, movies, or music), you left a store with a physical product. That product was yours as long as you kept the medium that it was purchased on. No one could take it away (short of literal theft, or an ill-fated loan to a friend).

When digital content – most notably in the form of iTunes music and movies – entered the scene, the idea of owning the digital content shifted to storing those files on your computer’s hard drive, iPod, or other physical medium. Those files remained yours as long as you didn’t lose (or destroy) your copy.

As Apple, and the iTunes Store, shifted to increased digital content and our devices become end-points for streamed content, the tech industry has moved away from users possessing and maintaining their files. Instead, most of us opt for subscription services or cloud-stored media.

The biggest issue that arises with cloud-stored digital content is that, while you “purchased” and “own” the content, you’ve essentially left it sitting on the store shelf any time you aren’t watching it. It’s a major trade-off for this kind of convenience, allowing someone else to share ownership of the content.

While the situation for Anders has an unfortunate end (that also shows a rather poor attempt by Apple to appease a disgruntled customer), the same does not have to be true for you. If you’ve invested in purchasing digital content from iTunes (or Amazon, Google, etc.) there are some simple things you can do don’t have your movies, music, or books stripped away.

Keep a backup

The best way to ensure you don’t lose your movies or music is the download a backup. Instead of solely relying on Apple to keep your entire movie or music collection on their servers in the sky, have your own personal copy. By doing this, you are guaranteed to have access to your purchased media, regardless of what a “content provide” decides.

iTunes dark mode macOS Mojave.
iTunes continues to be Apple’s primary platform for purchasing and experiencing digital content.

Keeping a backup can be as simple as downloading anything purchased to your Mac or PC. The file(s) saved to your machine won’t be updated or modified unless you choose to modify them. If you want to get more complex, you can venture into local network attached storage (NAS) options, or save your library to an external drive for safe keeping.

Buy physical media with digital copies

Another great way to ensure that you can keep your movies in your possession while also taking advantage of digital copies is to buy DVD/Blu-ray/Digital copies of movies. This gives you the convenience of a digital copy, buy with the option to fall back to a physical version should something happen with the digital release. This same practice can apply to music by buying physical CDs (or downloadable MP3s) of your favorite music. By having a physical or non-DRM version of that music, you can always revert to your personal copy if something happens to the cloud-based version.

The added bonus of doing this with music is that Apple Music and iTunes Match users can sync their non-iTunes purchases to Apple’s servers and enjoy it across all their devices without ever needing to rely on an iTunes purchase or iTunes Store availability to access their music.

Maintain your own digital media collection

While this option is a combination of the two previous, it’s also the most personal, private, and user controlled of the options. Instead of dealing with digital copies of movies or music from iTunes, Amazon, or Google, if you own a physical DVD/Blu-ray or physical CD, apps like Plex allow you to be the owner and curator of your own media collection.

Setting up Plex does require some extra hardware and a little bit of tinkering, but once configured, you are in complete control. Content is stored and streamed from your personal media collection, and can be accessed on any of your devices through the Plex app.

The largest drawback to using Plex (or similar products) is that you are running your own server, relying on your own internet connection, and have to capture and store all your own content. For some people, that’s a trade off that is worth knowing their movies are theirs for as long as their storage device exists.

Ultimately, digital content ownership is more complex than physical media or our (my) youth. Digital content offers incredible convenience, but it also comes with greater complications as tangible ownership of our content decreases. Fortunately, for now at least, there’s always the fall back of DVD, Blu-ray, CD, and a plethora of ways and places to back up your digital files. Just don’t lose those tangible copies.