Bricking it: Do you actually own anything digital?

From ebooks, to videos and software, the answer is increasingly no

Opinion What do Amazon, Sony, and Broadcom all have in common? Give up? Each, in their own way, has made it clear that when you buy something from them, you don't actually own it.

Going back to 2009, Amazon dropped 1984 and Animal Farm from its Kindle eReaders. You may have thought you owned copies of these classic George Orwell books, but you were wrong. Amazon said they'd discovered they hadn't the right to sell the books, so they deleted them from your eReaders. Eventually, Amazon restored those books, but a precedent had been set. Amazon, not you, owns your eBooks.

To quote from Amazon's copyright policy: "All content included in or made available through Amazon Business, such as text, graphics, logos, button icons, images, audio clips, digital downloads, data compilations, and software is the property of Amazon or its content suppliers and protected by U.S. and international copyright Laws. The compilation of all content included in or made available through any Amazon Business Service is the exclusive property of Amazon and protected by U.S. and international copyright Laws."

Funny, as I look at my large library of old-style books, I never had to worry about that with them. They all belong to me. Eventually, they'll go to my daughter's home or a library. My eBooks? They're off to the digital dustbin as soon as I'm under the ground.

Much more recently, Sony Interactive Entertainment has announced that as of December 31, 2023, users can no longer watch their previously purchased Discovery video content on their PlayStations. I'd never bought copies of Mythbusters, Deadliest Catch, How It’s Made or My 600-Pound Life myself, but someone did. If I were in their shoes, I'd be ticked.

What's that? Can't they always stream those shows? Can they? Not always. Take, for example, perhaps the best, most realistic American crime show, Homicide: Life on the Street. I love that show, and I have it on DVD, but the DVDs aren't available in the States now, and the show isn't available to stream anywhere. Like other shows, its rights are locked up in a mess and may never be available. This is especially poignant since the star, Andre Braugher, recently died, and many people want to see his signature role as Detective Frank Pembleton.

Finally, let's turn our attention to the aftershocks of Broadcom buying VMware. After the deal was finally cleared, Broadcom announced it was ending the sale of perpetual VMware software licenses and support and subscriptions for those perpetual offerings. Yes, you may have "owned" vSphere for years, but you can kiss that option and any support for it goodbye. That will be $X dollars per year from now to eternity thank you very much.

Broadcom isn't the only one doing this. Microsoft has been urging people away from their permanent licenses for desktop-based Office in favor of Microsoft 365 for years. I expect Windows will follow shortly by going to a subscription-only model.

So, what can you do about this trend for all the ownership power going to the company?

Well, one thing is to go old-school and get your books and media on paper and DVDs. That's easier said than done. For example, some books are only available now in eBook editions. And, manufacturers are abandoning Blu-Ray and DVD players, while retail vendors are giving up on selling DVDs.

What's a reader and a watcher to do? Since publishers are not letting me buy my own copies of their goods, it's time to make our own copies. The vendors frown on this, but they're not giving us any choice.

So, for ebooks, I use the open-source ebook program Calibre to manage them and a variety of tools to remove the Digital Rights Management (DRM)* from my books. It's a pain, but it works.

For video, I rip the movies off my DVDs using Handbrake. I know other people who use VLC Media Player. To remove DRM, you'll need the open-source library, libdvdcss.

If you don't want to get your hands dirty with the ins and outs of video transcribing and removing DRM, there are also commercial programs such as WinX DVD Ripper. Once you have the video files in MP4 format, you can use programs such as Jellyfin, Plex, or PlayOn so you can watch your TV shows and movies on your TV as well as your PC.

All of the above is in a gray area of the law. In many regions it's technically illegal to remove DRM even for personal use, although there are some exceptions. If you intend to resell or share copies, it's certainly illegal to rip commercial, copyrighted, copy-protected videos or eBooks almost everywhere in the world. As it happens, I don't. I just want to watch The Thin Man movies even if I can't replace my DVD player sometime in the future and it's not available on a streaming service. I bought my books and videos, and I have this notion that I want to be able to enjoy them even if their intellectual property owners decide I can't.

As for software, the answer has always been open source. Companies may decide I can't use their program without paying an annual fee, but I'm good to go as long as I can get my hands on the code. Broadcom may stop me from using "my" copy of vSphere, but no one can block me from running other open-source virtualization programs such as KVM and Xen.

In short, companies may try to restrict our use of the intellectual property we've purchased, but if you're willing to do some work, you can still call the shots. ®

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