Do you actually "own" the content you purchase on Amazon Prime?

This is a question that’s of particular interest to me and, judging by the number of subscribers Amazon Prime boasts, it may be applicable to many of you as well. (They claim to have 112 million subscribers just in the United States, which is more than 1/3 of the population of the country.) If you use Amazon Prime there’s a fair chance that you’ve purchased some movies or television series from them. But when you do that, do you truly “own” the content? That’s the question at the heart of a lawsuit currently playing out in California. You may think you do, but Amazon is claiming otherwise. (Hollywood Reporter)

When an Amazon Prime Video user buys content on the platform, what they’re really paying for is a limited license for “on-demand viewing over an indefinite period of time” and they’re warned of that in the company’s terms of use. That’s the company’s argument for why a lawsuit over hypothetical future deletions of content should be dismissed.

Amanda Caudel in April sued Amazon for unfair competition and false advertising. She claims the company “secretly reserves the right” to end consumers’ access to content purchased through its Prime Video service. She filed her putative class action on behalf of herself and any California residents who purchased video content from the service from April 25, 2016 to present.

On Monday, Amazon filed a motion to dismiss her complaint arguing that she lacks standing to sue because she hasn’t been injured — and noting that she’s purchased 13 titles on Prime since filing her complaint.

There are two elements to Amazon’s denial and request to dismiss the suit, and one of them may actually have some merit. In order to bring a lawsuit such as this, the plaintiff needs to demonstrate that they’ve suffered harm at the hands of the defendant. Amanda Caudel hasn’t been able to show that any of the content she purchased has become unavailable, so she may not actually have standing in this case.

But the larger question is whether all of the tens of millions of people who have purchased a movie or television show actually “own” that content in perpetuity. To be fair to Amazon, there is apparently something buried in their endless terms and conditions form covering this, but who actually reads the entire thing? And more to the point, how many of you without a law degree actually understand all of it? At some point, I would hope that a bit of common sense could prevail in the courts and have them declare that Amazon simply has to do better than that.

The underlying issue here is that when you browse the movies and shows on Amazon Prime – specifically the ones that aren’t provided for free as part of the service – you have two options offered to you. You can “rent” the show for a set period of time, during which you can stream it as often as you like. But for a higher price, you can “buy” the show and it remains in your catalog of available films and shows, supposedly indefinitely. But what if they drop that show at some point in the future?

Amazon is claiming that what you’re really purchasing is a ‘limited license for on-demand viewing over an indefinite period of time.’ Notice that they are saying “indefinite” rather than infinite. That implies that your “ownership” may come to an end without warning at some point in the future. But that’s not what it means to “buy” something and words matter. If you purchase a physical DVD of a particular movie and Amazon ships it to you in one of their little smiley-face boxes, they can’t show up at your door two years later and demand that you give it back. It’s your property because you bought it and paid for it.

This appears to be yet another complication in our burgeoning economy of online intellectual property. Many lines become blurred over time. When you purchase a movie on DVD (or VHS tape for you dinosaurs out there), you don’t own the right to rebroadcast it and make money off of it, but you can keep it and watch it for as long as the disc is playable. So are you buying “the movie” or just the storage device it’s written to? In the case of Amazon Prime, you’re “buying” the right to watch the movie whenever you want. But there is no option to purchase a physical storage medium containing the movie that you can keep in your home. The movie you bought lives somewhere out in the cloud.

In that regard, we could think of the cloud as the equivalent of the physical DVD. If you don’t take care of your disc and it becomes damaged and unplayable, that’s your problem. But in this scenario, Amazon is responsible for keeping the content playable from its cloud, aren’t they? That seems like a fairly common-sense approach to me. Amazon either needs to take responsibility for any purchased content that they drop from their inventory and refund the purchase price or stop telling people they can “buy” films and shows from them.

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