As the entertainment industry changes its distribution strategy to allow people to buy or rent movies closer to or simultaneously with their theatrical release, you may find yourself amassing a larger digital library than in the past. But when you buy a movie from a digital service like Amazon Prime Video or Vudu, does it really belong to you? What if you bought a song from iTunes or downloaded one to your phone from Spotify? Do these files belong to you forever? If you cancel the service or, unlikely as it may seem, one of these huge companies goes bankrupt, then what happens?

The answer is a bit complex, but the short version is no, you don’t actually own the digital media files you buy. That doesn’t mean you’re in imminent danger of losing all the digital movies and TV shows you’ve bought from a megacorporation, but it is possible. Here’s what you need to know.

What it means to “own” digital content

What exactly do we mean when we talk about owning something digital? Everyone knows – or hopefully everyone knows – that this doesn’t mean you can turn around and sell that digital item to someone else, broadcast it, or distribute it en masse. You don’t need to dig deep into the terms of service to find such actions expressly prohibited.

For this discussion, owning a digital file means being able to watch or listen to that content at any time, without further payment, in perpetuity – or at least as long as you can get a device to convert that old 4K video file into something. that your brand new holodeck on your space yacht can read.

By this definition, well, you still own nothing. Not really. What you are buying in most cases is a license to watch that video or listen to that song. Indeed, this license is good as long as it really matters. I mean, let’s be honest: if an 8K sensorsurround remaster of The Lord of the Rings comes out in 2030, are you going to care about the 1080p version you bought on Vudu?

Let’s take a look at the FandangoNow/Vudu Terms of Service, which are pretty typical. I have bolded the important parts.

When you order or view Content and pay the applicable fees, you will be granted a non-exclusive, non-transferable, non-commercial, limited license to access, use and/or view the Content subject to all use rights contained herein and any additional terms that may be provided with your devices and/or such Content (“Use Rights”).

Pretty standard stuff. You can watch the item as often as you like, but the terms state that you may not “sell, rent, lease, distribute, perform or publicly display, broadcast, sublicense, or otherwise assign any right to the content to a third party.” You probably already know this: just because you bought and downloaded a movie doesn’t mean you can burn it to a DVD and sell the DVD, among other reasons, because you would have to decipher the management digital rights to the file, which is also expressly prohibited.Digital Rights Management, or DRM, allows a company to restrict what you can do with a digital file, such as preventing copying or allowing you to watch it only a number of times.

In the FandangoNow/Vudu Terms of Service, there’s an additional section worth checking out, under “Viewing Periods”:

Fandango’s Authority to Provide Content to You is subject to restrictions imposed by movie studios and other distributors and providers who make Content available to Fandango (“Content Providers”). These content providers may designate periods during which Fandango is prohibited from renting, selling, permitting downloading and/or streaming to you certain Content, including Content purchased by Fandango/Vudu, and you agree that these limitations may limit your access to the Content.

The “including Fandango/Vudu purchased content” part is the most important. This means that if Disney, for example, decides that it no longer wants to allow Vudu to sell its movies, the company can ask Vudu to deactivate Disney movies. As unlikely as it may seem, theoretically the service could block access to movies you’ve already purchased, as the terms suggest, “[Y]our ability to stream or download content may end if our licenses end, change or expire. »

Here’s how Amazon says the same thing. Again, the bold emphasis is mine:

“Availability of purchased digital content. Purchased digital content will be in general continue to be available for downloading or streaming from the Service, as applicable, but may become unavailable due to potential content provider licensing restrictions or other reasons, and Amazon will not be liable to you if purchased digital content becomes unavailable for download or streaming.

A case about this is pending in the California courts.

And here is the Google version, for multimedia content sold via its Play store:

Content you purchase or install will be available through Google Play for the period you select, in the case of a purchase for a rental period, and in other cases as long as Google has the right to make such content available. your disposition. . IIn certain cases (for example, if Google loses corresponding rights, if a service or Content is interrupted, if there are critical security issues, or if there are violations of the applicable terms or the law), Google may remove from your Device or cease to provide you with access to certain Content that you have purchased. For Content sold by Google LLC, you may be notified of such removal or termination, where possible. If you are unable to download a copy of the Content prior to such removal or termination, Google may offer you either (a) a replacement of the Content where possible, or (b) a full or partial refund of the price of the Content. If Google grants you a refund, the refund will be your sole remedy.

Interestingly, Google says it can offer you a refund if it removes your content without asking.

What is the probability of all of this happening? Not very, which we’ll talk about in a moment.

Here’s what you definitely don’t have

There is media content that you absolutely rent. On the music side, Spotify is a good example. If you cancel your subscription, you will no longer have access to the files you have downloaded to your phone. Your subscription allows you to rent these files, with no purchase option. The music industry loves this arrangement, by the way, because you continually pay to listen to the same songs, albeit a fraction of a penny each time. I chose Spotify, but all streaming music services are like that, unlike download services like iTunes or Amazon Music (see below).

Streaming video, of course, is another category where you don’t own anything, even if you download content to watch on your mobile device or computer. For example, if you cancel your Netflix service, everything you’ve downloaded is locked, just like Spotify. The same with Disney+ Premier Access. Even if you pay a price closer to the purchase fee (usually $30), it’s still more like a rental that’s only accessible as long as you keep your Disney+ subscription.

To go further, if you go to another country, even if you are only on vacation, you may no longer be able to access content that you could watch in your home country. A VPN can help you by geotagging your location; again, it might not.

So what does all of this really mean?

It is unlikely that any company will willfully annihilate the alleged assets of millions of customers, despite the fact that these companies would like you to buy all your movies again. The backlash would be substantial, and the resulting lawsuits would likely take years and millions of dollars to resolve. Companies, for the most part, would be reluctant to alienate and anger such a large customer base.

That doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen. Just take the feuds between Roku and Warner, or Roku and Google, as two of many examples in which consumers are forced to deal with the fallout between bickering companies.

A more likely scenario is that a media company goes bankrupt. In this case, the most likely course is for another company to buy out the digital media portion of the business and retain your right to watch the content you purchased. This has happened before with Vudu, which was owned by Walmart for over a decade and is now owned by Fandango Media, a company itself owned by NBCUniversal and WarnerMedia…which are owned by Comcast and AT&T, respectively.

But if you’re still worried about losing access to your purchased content, the solution is to go physical. It’s much harder for companies to stop you looking at a physical disc, although this has been tried in the past. Although digital rights management is built into Blu-ray and DVD players and receives periodic updates via the web, if you don’t connect the player to the web it should still be able to play any disc format. compatible. Some discs even come with a code that unlocks a digital copy, which is certainly handy, although as we’ve seen you can’t expect those copies to last forever (most discs even have a date on which you must activate the code).

Audio is even easier. Shocking as it may sound, you can still buy CDs. Rip them to a hard drive, and you have digital copies for as long as your hard drive lasts (and presumably the CD will last even longer). Alternatively, you can buy and download DRM-free music and convert it to whatever file format you like or trust. iTunes and Amazon Music files are DRM-free, as are downloads from many smaller music sites, many of which offer higher quality audio files. For older music downloads that have DRM, you can usually convert them to a DRM-free format such as FLAC or WAV.

So, no, you don’t own your digital files, and theoretically you could at some point be blocked from watching or listening to them. In reality, your digital collection is probably safe for the foreseeable future, but if the very thought of a company excluding you from your movies and music makes you angry, we suggest you embrace physical media such as Blu-rays and 4K CDs, which likely survive any digital media apocalypse.