Digital disappearing acts
The concept of ownership in a digital world is once again under the spotlight following Microsoft's move this month to close its books category. Those who had purchased ebooks will get a refund, having been forewarned about the closure in April.
As commentators have pointed out, Microsoft is able to close its digital bookstore - which was launched in 2017 - because of a tool called Digital Rights Management. DRM was designed to enable the sale of digital goods in way that reduced copyright infringement, but it also means that tech companies can use DRM to exercise complete control over their ecosystems. This makes it harder for people to switch to different services and also, it seems, to hold onto the stuff they legally purchased.
The writer Cory Doctorow, who was the keynote speaker at Internet NZ's Nethui on Copyright last year is particularly vocal about Microsoft's move and DRM itself (which he is fervently opposed to).
"This puts the difference between DRM-locked media and unencumbered media into sharp contrast. I have bought a lot of MP3s over the years, thousands of them, and many of the retailers I purchased from are long gone, but I still have the MP3s. Likewise, I have bought many books from long-defunct booksellers and even defunct publishers, but I still own those books," he writes.
"When I was a bookseller, nothing I could do would result in your losing the book that I sold you. If I regretted selling you a book, I didn't get to break into your house and steal it, even if I left you a cash refund for the price you paid."
As Wired points out, at least Microsoft can afford to pay people for refund (maybe a sign that there weren't that many buyers), but what if that isn't the case?
"The next time a platform folds-and takes its ecosystem with it-those affected might not be so lucky. Which is maybe the real lesson of Microsoft obliterating its ebooks: This has all happened before, and not nearly enough is being done to stop it from happening again."
Microsoft's ability to disappear their customer's ebooks is another reminder of the strange conundrum of the web which renders everything permanent and impermanent at the same time. While some fight for the right to be forgotten in Google search engines, others mourn the loss of the creative output they had entrusted to online platforms.
In March MySpace, the forerunner to today's social media sites (which still exists BTW), announced that it had effectively lost music files uploaded to the platform before 2015. Apparently, the files - which amounted to about 53 million songs from 14.2 million artists over 12 years - were corrupted beyond repair during a server migration. While professional artists may not have been phased, amateur musicians found that the work they had once entrusted in My Space's guardianship has now disappeared forever.
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