The way we purchase movies and TV shows has changed a lot since the invention of home video. In fact, these days, many of us don’t buy anything at all, and stream all our content instead. Still, there are plenty who prefer to buy their entertainment, with a subsection happy to do so digitally. After all, with disc-less devices like Apple TVs and Fire Sticks all the rage, it’s the most convenient way to buy your media.
However, there’s a major catch that many don’t realize when they put their digital card down: You don’t actually own any of the digital movies and TV shows you buy.
PlayStation is the latest to remove titles from buyers’ libraries
Sony recently posted a “legal update notice” on the PlayStation site. That might not normally move headlines, but this time is different: In the notice, Sony outlines hundreds of Discovery-branded shows you will no longer be able to access starting Dec. 31:
As of 31 December 2023, due to our content licensing arrangements with content providers, you will no longer be able to watch any of your previously purchased Discovery content and the content will be removed from your video library.
We sincerely thank you for your continued support.
Hey, at least they thanked us for our support.
Is there a refund involved, at least? Nope. If you purchased any of this content on the PlayStation Store in the past, you simply lose both the content and your money at the end of the year. Whether it’s Breaking Amish, Cake Boss, or Mythbusters, you better rewatch your favorite shows now, because you’ll lose access to them before 2024.
If you’re pissed off, I don’t blame you. If you’re scared for the rest of your PlayStation Store content, I don’t blame you. Sony certainly didn’t make it clear when you make a TV or movie purchase that, hey, if we lose the licensing rights to this thing you’re buying, not only will it disappear from the store, we’ll remove it from your PlayStation. Of course, you can’t actually buy shows and movies on your PlayStation anymore, as Sony shuttered the service back in 2021, so you might think you need to look elsewhere for buying shows and movies anyway.
The problem is, you’re not better off buying your digital shows and movies from other platforms, like Amazon, Apple, or Google. Sadly, this issue affects all platforms who sell digital media: Nowhere is safe.
You don’t own digital shows and movies
Here’s the unfortunate truth: Whether you buy The Dark Knight from Amazon, or Community: Season 1 on Google, the digital media you “purchase” isn’t really yours. You don’t own it, and neither does the platform you bought it from. What you’re paying for is the right to watch that content for as long as the provider has the right to host it. As soon as their licensing agreement with the company that actually owns the content expires, and the platform doesn’t renew it, the platform loses the right to “sell” it, and, subsequently, you lose the right to watch it. No refunds, no discounts on future purchases, just a lighter wallet.
As frustrating as it is, we all technically agree to this arrangement when we make a purchase. You find some language outlining these conditions in the terms of service for any platform that doesn’t actually own the content they’re selling. Take Amazon Prime Video, for example. Scroll through their TOS, and you’ll this:
i. Availability of Purchased Digital Content. Purchased Digital Content will generally continue to be available to you for download or streaming from the Service, as applicable, but may become unavailable due to potential content provider licensing restrictions or for other reasons, and Amazon will not be liable to you if Purchased Digital Content becomes unavailable for further download or streaming.
Google’s TOS says something similar:
In certain cases (for example if Google loses the relevant rights, a service or Content is discontinued, there are critical security issues, or there are breaches of applicable terms or the law), Google may remove from your Device or cease providing you with access to certain Content that you have purchased.
Now, it’s not like this happens all the time. If it did, there would probably be more of an uproar about this sort of thing. I have movies and shows in my “Apple TV” library that I bought a decade or more ago that are still happily waiting for the next time I want to watch them, and will likely be there for years to come. But, if for some reason, AMC Networks revokes Breaking Bad from Apple’s platform, or if Amazon MGM Studios decides that Casino Royal doesn’t need to be available on non-Amazon platforms, I could see my library shrink. (Also, this is how I find out Amazon owns MGM now?)
While this situation sucks, it wouldn’t be as bad if they just made it clear. No one—I repeat—no one reads the terms of service for these things, and companies know that. Instead of a “Buy” button, there should be a “Lease” button, with a big pop-up warning you that you’re just renting the movie or show for the indefinite future. At least then, people won’t be as pissed when the $30 they spent on a TV season disappears from their Fire Stick.
If you want to own your content, buy physical
Betamax, laserdisc, and VHS were all beat out by advancing technology, but that doesn’t mean digital media killed physical content. In fact, DVD and Blu-ray sell quite well these days, and you can find them in abundance for just about any title you’re looking for. If you’re going to spend your money to “own” something, you might as well pick something that studios can’t take away from you in the future.
Even if you did own digital copies, there are plenty of benefits to physical media, from video quality to media preservation. Now, if the studios figure out how to block you from watching your discs, that’s another story. But even in 2023, as long as you have a disc and something to play it on, you’re set.
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