When digital downloads first began to cut into the physical media market, one common argument was that buying digital goods meant they were never really yours. That argument hasn’t gone away, but it’s lost a lot of power over the years as content libraries have, for the most part, remained under user control. There have been some high-profile exceptions, like Amazon’s decision to pull 1984 out of user libraries several years ago, but for the most part, content access has remained constant, at least from major vendors.
A recent move by Apple, however, illustrates just how illusory that access is, and how little the company cares when consumers get screwed. Anders G da Silva recently contacted Apple when he discovered multiple movies he had purchased on iTunes were no longer available for him to watch. The company’s response to him is below:
Me: Hey Apple, three movies I bought disappeared from my iTunes library.
Apple: Oh yes, those are not available anymore. Thank you for buying them. Here are two movie rentals on us!
Me: Wait… WHAT?? @tim_cook when did this become acceptable? pic.twitter.com/dHJ0wMSQH9
— Anders G da Silva (@drandersgs) September 10, 2018
It states, in part:
After reviewing this case, I have noticed that the content provider has removed these movies from the Canadian Store. Hence, these movies are not available in the Canada iTunes Store at this time.
Movies on iTunes range from sub-$10 prices to $20, suggesting da Silva likely spent between $30 – $60 on his three films. As a consolation prize, Apple offers him two free movie rentals of any movie up to $5.99, which isn’t exactly restitution for his loss.
Companies talk about both sides of their mouths on this issue and they do it frequently. There are games that can’t be sold any longer because their audio licensing agreements have expired (some games get around this by patching in different audio or removing certain songs after a period of time). Da Silva never owned those movies at all — not for any actual meaning of the word ownership. And Apple doesn’t care. When Da Silva responded that he wasn’t satisfied with his situation, the company responded by clarifying that Apple doesn’t actually sell anything.
Me: I am not really interested in the rentals. I want my movies back or my money back.
Apple: I totally get how you feel…
Me: Condescending, but go one…
Apple: You see, we are just a store front.
Me: Store front?
— Anders G da Silva (@drandersgs) September 11, 2018
The new letter reads:
Please be informed that the iTunes/App Store is a store front that gives content provider[sic] a platform or place to sell their items. We can only offer what has been made available to us via the studios or a distributor… Also, know that our ability to issue the refund diminishes over time. Hence your purchases doesn’t meet the conditions for a refund.
Apple, the company with a trillion-dollar valuation, whose business can literally make or break other companies, who once entered the e-book business specifically to degrade and diminish Amazon’s market power in that area, the company that kicked off a revolution in how apps are distributed on mobile devices and created the first modern smartphone to ever come to market. That Apple. It’s App Store is just a store front with a magical money fountain that gradually evaporates, preventing it from granting refunds over time.
Here’s a crazy idea. Maybe Da Silva deserves a refund because Apple falsely represented that it had the right to sell a product it actually offered for a very long rental period. I realize that legally, the company undoubtedly crafted its contracts to cover its ass, but this is not solely a legal issue. This is a question of how ownership is perceived culturally, not just legally, and the only bottom line Apple cares about is its own. That’s how one of the most powerful companies on the planet suddenly becomes a meek, shrinking violet at the mercy of titanic forces it can scarcely comprehend. The App Store is a “store front.” No, the App Store is a distribution portal through which billions of dollars flows every single year. The question of whether or not the App Store wields sufficient power to be considered a monopoly is headed to the Supreme Court, and Apple has the unmitigated gall to declare itself a “store front” so it can avoid making a customer whole after revoking access to content he’d paid for.
If you care about actually retaining access to a piece of content, buy it physically. Apple could’ve demanded that its customers retain the right to play works they purchased in perpetuity. It didn’t. And if Apple doesn’t care enough about its customers to ensure they retain access to content they paid full purchase price for, or even enough to refund their money in an event like this, there’s no reason it should see another dime of yours.
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