You know all those movies you bought from Apple? Um, well, think different: You didn't

As the licensing terms change, your 'purchase' can vanish


Remember when you decided to buy, rather than rent, that movie online? We have some bad news for you – you didn't.

Biologist Anders Gonçalves da Silva was surprised this week to find three movies he had purchased through iTunes simply disappeared one day from his library. So he contacted Apple to find out what had happened.

And Apple told him it no longer had the license rights for those movies so they had been removed. To which he of course responded: Ah, but I didn't rent them, I actually bought them through your "buy" option.

At which point da Silva learnt a valuable lesson about the realities of digital purchases and modern licensing rules: While he had bought the movies, what he had actually paid for was the ability to download the movie to his hard drive.

"Please be informed that the iTunes/App Store is a store front that give content providers a platform or a place to sell their items," the company informed him. "We can only offer what has been made available to us. Since the content provider has removed these movies… I am unable to provide you the copy of the movies."

Sure, he could stream it whenever he wanted since he had bought it, but once those licensing rights were up, if he hadn't downloaded the movie, it was gone – forever.

This is clearly not the first time Apple has come across people imagining that when they buy something they own it, so the company offered him two movie rentals of up to $5.99 to make amends. But the three movies he thought he had "bought" cost far more than $12, he complained.

Diminishing returns

No dice. "Our ability to issue the refund diminishes over time. Hence your purchases don’t meet the conditions for a refund. To learn move about our refund policy, see this page…" it responded.

But follow that link and there is in fact no clear language on refunds. What it says is: "All Transactions are final. Content prices may change at any time. If technical problems prevent or unreasonably delay delivery of Content, your exclusive and sole remedy is either replacement of the Content or refund of the price paid, as determined by Apple."

If other words, Apple has complete discretion over whether to refund you in full, in part, or not at all. And in this case it used its discretion to grant him another two movie rental credits of $5.99 or less.

Of course from Apple's perspective, it is being perfectly reasonable: it literally does not have the right to provide access to a movie if and when the licensing rights expire. And in good faith it has offered him $24 in equivalent credits to make up for his loss.

But it's safe to say that almost no one understands that when you "buy" a movie online, you are only buying the right to grab a digital copy on that day. Apple suggests that people may want to download their purchases – but it's far from clear how many people actually do.

It notes – again, buried in its terms and conditions: "It is your responsibility not to lose, destroy, or damage Content once downloaded. We encourage you to back up your Content regularly."

The situation is made all the more complicated by the fact that additional restrictions are placed on how many times you are allowed to save a copy of your digital content and on how many different machines, in an effort to prevent piracy.

Not just Apple

And it's not fair to single out just Apple either: pretty much every provider of digital content has the same rules. Amazon got in hot water a few years ago when its deal with Disney expired and customers discovered that their expensive movie purchases vanished over night. In 2009 thee was a similar ruckus when it pulled George Orwell's classic 1984 from Kindles without notice.

In reality of course, these huge companies go to great lengths to ensure that their licensing deals with the main content companies are retained so the situation happens only occasionally. And such deals are usually worth so much to both sides that they are continually renewed.

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Amazon vanishes 1984 from citizen Kindles

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But with so much changing in the content industry right now, it is a problem that could very well get worse as companies compete with one another. Apple, for example, will soon be entering the fray with dozens of new original content shows. And it has a long history of aggressive blocking of other companies like Amazon (Amazon's Prime Video app was only recently added to the AppleTV store).

Disney is also looking to launch a standalone service for its massive stable of movies and as part of that it may decide to pull its licensing deals from other outlets.

And while the answer is to download movies, the reality is that they take up an enormous amount of space. The base level AppleTV for example comes with just 32GB of space. A DVD quality movie will typically run to around 4GB, and a Blu-ray movie to 7 or 8GB: meaning you can only download between four and eight movies before you're out of space.

It's something that is only likely to be resolved when there is a big punch-up between two big companies and the lawsuits start flying. Of course it would be much easier if before that happened companies like Apple implemented a raft of new measures, such as giving customers that have "bought" a movie advance notice of the need to download a movie; or negotiating new digital download rights to fit with the modern streaming era.

But that is unlikely to happen until it has to. Which means that the best advice is quite simple: if you want to own a movie, buy it in a physical format – a DVD or Blu-ray disc. And if you don't, rent and stream it. ®

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