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Last month, the unthinkable occurred: Amazon Instant Video customers were unable to stream several Disney Christmas specials, including Prep & Landing 2: Naughty vs. Nice, Beauty & the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas, and (most egregiously) The Muppet Christmas Carol. In some cases, customers who had already purchased these titles saw them disappear from their libraries. While Amazon quickly restored access to the specials, the event has reignited a conversation about the morass that is digital media ownership. When you purchase digital content, does that mean you own it? And if not, then who does?
When the story of the disappearing Christmas shows first broke on Boing Boing, an Amazon customer service representative had reportedly told a customer that "Disney can pull their content at any time and 'at this time they've pulled that show for exclusivity on their own channel.'" However, in an interview with All Things D, an Amazon PR rep said the disappearing titles had been "a temporary issue with ... catalog data," and "customers should never lose access to their Amazon Instant Video purchases."
In other words, the content disappearance may not have been the result of shady Disney machinations at all, but a glitch. That said, the article notes that this is by no means the first time we've heard of Amazon taking away access to purchased content: "Back in 2009, [Amazon] deleted two George Orwell books from customers' Kindles, and later explained that it didn't have the right to sell the books in the first place." These examples are hardly evidence of an overarching Amazon digital media conspiracy, but they do draw attention to the larger problem of digital content ownership.
Amazon's digital customers aren't the only ones to suddenly lose access to their purchased media. As we previously mentioned, the now-defunct digital comic book purveyor JManga inexplicably deleted its entire catalog when it went under, including all the paid-for content in its customers' accounts. Furthermore, the threat of digital media being taken away on the whim of some capricious company is one of the main reasons many people still choose to become pirates.
So who really owns purchased digital content? It's a question that we'll see brought up more and more often in the coming years. With even eBay getting into the digital media business, lawmakers, producers, retailers, and consumers alike are going to need to come to a consensus. In the meantime, by clicking "I agree" on a digital sale's terms and conditions, you're probably agreeing to a digital rental.
Readers, have you ever lost access to your paid-for digital content? Will this latest scandal affect your future Amazon Instant Video purchases? Weigh in on this complicated issue in the comments below!