The Sony/Discovery Debacle Again Highlights The Fallacy Of ‘Digital Ownership’ |

The Sony/Discovery Debacle Again Highlights The Fallacy Of ‘Digital Ownership’

PlayStation recently announced that, as of the end of this year, all digital copies of Discovery content previously purchased on their platform will no longer be accessible due to “licensing arrangements.” The news has understandably triggered an uproar from consumers about things they spent hard-earned money on being taken from them, but this has happened before and will happen again. It’s only the latest chapter in the flimsy reality that is digital content ownership. Your friend who has been screaming about the importance of physical media for over a decade actually did have a point. 

If you’re confused as to how licensing could affect content consumers seemingly own and have already paid for, it has something to do with those pesky residuals you kept hearing about during the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes. Pretty much everything that’s been discussed in recent months focuses on streaming residuals, which are connected to deals made for Subscription Video on Demand, or SVOD, services like Netflix or Disney Plus. There has also been a lot of chatter about Free Advertising Supported Streaming Television, or FAST, and Ad-supported Video On Demand, or AVOD, as structures for streaming monetization. The former are things like Pluto TV or Roku Channel that have set channels and schedules. In contrast, the latter is for free ad-supported on-demand tiers like Peacock or Hulu Basic options which can be free or less expensive than full premium subscriptions. 

If you’re not confused enough, digital purchases on platforms like PlayStation or through movie and television storefronts like Vudu or Google are a completely different category known as Transactional Video On Demand, or TVOD. When distribution deals are made for television and movies, those complex contracts will almost always include different residual percentages and restrictions on TVOD, SVOD, AVOD, and FAST distribution. When contracts expire, it’s not uncommon for content to suddenly disappear from platforms that previously provided access. 

In the latest case of Discovery content, that comes with the unspoken reality of the massive HBO Max and Discovery Plus consolidation following the WarnerMedia/Discovery merger finalizing. New people are in charge, making new decisions about how to distribute their content, and they don’t care if a licensing change yanks access from thousands of viewers for hundreds of different shows. They’ve done it before, and they’ll surely do it again. 

The additional threat to digital content isn’t just licensing, it’s maintenance and platform upkeep. In most cases, the companies insist that content will be retained later on and provide methods to restore or reacquire it when things change. When Zune died out, Microsoft allowed a temporary window for customers to download purchased songs. When the Wii U and 3DS eShops shut down, some previously free content was no longer downloadable, though previously purchased games and DLC should still be accessible. 

Unfortunately, the reality of deteriorating maintenance means that even when services technically remain available they may not be accessible. According to Microsoft, the Xbox 360 app for Movies & TV should still work fine and customers should be able to watch things they purchased on that console without issue. Yet when the hardware breaks down and they stop maintaining it or addressing bugs with updates, you get lots of people in Microsoft Answers threads shouting into the void about how the app is broken and no one is fixing it. 

So now you’ve already got the risk of digital platform death and licensing issues affecting whether or not you actually own any of those movies you paid for, but what if you want to move? Best hope it’s not to another country because chances are several of those things you think you own are region-locked. When complex movie and television distribution deals are ironed out, the residual amounts tend to vary both by distribution type and by region. If you purchase a bunch of movies on Vudu and move to the United Kingdom, you won’t have any way of watching them because Vudu is region-locked and not available. 

All of these factors come together and influence the contracts that are signed, but when that contract expires the company will likely have put someone else in charge and completely changed the way it wants to distribute things. That’s how you end up with Discovery content thousands of people spent their money on believing they’d have permanent access, because it wasn’t a subscription-based streaming service, only to realize it can be snatched away as soon as the company that owns it decides to make a different deal. 

Does all of this mean that no one should ever bother with digital content or streaming? Not at all, and in reality you often can speak for important shows by using those avenues. In the complex landscape of streaming, watching new shows in their first weeks after release is absolutely critical if you hope a show has any chance of another season. If you don’t have a device that can play a 4K UHD disc, there’s nothing wrong with snagging a digital 4K copy (if one is available) to enjoy on your TV. None of these things is a bad decision, but it’s one you need to make with a full understanding of what you are and aren’t buying. Digital access is temporary, no matter how many times they tell you it’s not. 

Once again, we’re having to learn the lesson that only physical media is actually owned. Digital content used through company-operated platforms is only available until the company sees a way to make a few extra bucks at the expense of your purchase history. For shows that don’t have physical media releases, that makes digital piracy an imperative for the sake of media preservation. Companies are happy to yank content away from consumers as long as it benefits their bottom line, and destroying all record of someone’s art has never been a deterrent for them. 

When it comes to both the retention of your purchase and the residuals that ultimately end up with the people who created it, nothing compares to physical media. If your favorite show is on streaming and actually drops a physical release, take that opportunity to support the creators and ensure you’ll always have a copy. If your favorite show is only available digitally, the only way you’ll be able to guarantee you can watch it in the future may be to turn to pirated copies, which can lead to new forms of erasure in a media landscape bent on marginalizing artists in favor of corporate bottom lines.

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