In April of this year, a woman named Amanda Caudel sued Amazon for unfair competition and false advertising. She claimed that the almighty conglomerate ‘secretly reserves the right’ to end users’ access to content purchased through the Amazon Prime service. On Monday, Amazon filed a motion to dismiss her complaint, While doing so, they made it clear that, no, you don’t outright own the content you purchase through Prime:
The bleak reality of an always-digital model of entertainment has been one that has caused much contention among media fans and legal experts alike. Amazon, one of the biggest figures in an increasingly monopolistic business model, is only verbalizing what has been true for a long time: digital is fleeting, and no matter how much you pay for it or use it, it does not belong to you. It is essentially a loan, one that can be removed from your care in the blink of an eye.
There are many advantages to the streaming age of film and television. It’s undeniably cool that you can access thousands of hours of entertainment from your own home, including foreign language series and hidden gems that would otherwise be near-impossible to track down. There’s a whole world of cinema available at your fingertips, and platforms like Netflix have invested heavily in filmmakers, genres, and ideas that the traditional Hollywood model had been unfeasible or past their sell-by date. During this period of extended COVID-19 lockdown, at-home entertainment has been a lifesaver. If the industry continues its downward spiral thanks to the virus restrictions, then streaming and the at-home digital market will be a crucial part of the future of the medium. When even Disney gives in and releases a nine-figure tentpole blockbuster to its streaming service, you know the rulebook has been irrevocably rewritten.
That promise of unlimited access, however, is but a mere fantasy, one we’ve all giddily bought into. I don’t say this to put anyone down. I’m not immune to the pleasures of streaming service delights and the sheer convenience of speedy access. Yes, I too have been known to look for a movie I own on Netflix rather than move my lazy ar*e to my shelves to look out the DVD. The streaming model has entirely shifted our mindsets in terms of how we approach entertainment, from the evolution of the binge-watch to our expectations of pure quantity of options. This is our new norm, and it took billions of dollars and a lot of savvy marketing to make that happen. Combine the genius of Netflix and Amazon’s campaigns with gradual shifts in taste and the increased options available, and it seemed inevitable that we’d all prefer the digital model to the old ways.
The digital promise is ephemeral, a dream that is so easy to embrace because of the combination of convenience and infinite ideas that it suggests. Who wouldn’t want unlimited access to music, films, television series, documentaries, video games, and much more? It’s the world we dreamed of. Instead, it’s another means for conglomerates to force its customers into subscription models and endless payments for something that they previously only had to pay once to obtain. As Amazon themselves said, when you buy a movie on Prime, you’re only putting down the cash for the privilege of a ‘limited license’ and they can take it away on a whim should they so desire. You may not pay for single titles on Netflix or Disney+ (with Mulan being the obvious exception for the latter) but the reasoning is still the same. You subscribe, hopefully indefinitely, and you get unlimited access to all these cool things, right up until they’re removed from the platform without explanation.
This is the market that the major entertainment conglomerates want, the long-term business model that they hope will provide them with greater profits and even greater control over their own intellectual properties. That’s one of the reasons we’re seeing so many networks and studios getting into the streaming game, often with questionable results (RIP Quibi.) Disney doesn’t want to share its work with other services, and it certainly doesn’t want to just give it away. They’ve operated for decades with the false image of exclusivity through their ‘Disney vault’ model and Disney+ is a mere extension of that, but without the tangible ownership of the thing that you paid for.
When companies move towards a largely digital model, they are less enthused about physical media as an investment. Indeed, for platforms like Netflix, it’s detrimental to their entire business plan if they release all their exclusive titles on DVD. Think of all the shows, films, documentaries, stand-up specials, and the like that will never see the light of day should Netflix one day go under. We’re already at risk of losing decades’ worth of history in film and television thanks to the digital market’s seeming disinterest in archival preservation. Disney owns thousands of Fox titles thanks to their $71 billion acquisition, and a lot of them have suddenly gotten a lot harder to access for indie cinemas and repertory houses looking to screen them. There is absolutely nothing stopping them from one day deciding that all those movies can just rot in a warehouse with no at-home release or even digital access.
There’s no better time to invest in physical media. I understand that it’s a privilege to do so and it’s not one that is economically viable for many. However, I will say this: if there is a movie you truly love and you do not already own a physical copy of it, go buy one now. Hit up eBay for some bargains, invest in good quality releases when they’re available, and check out international releases in locations like South Korea where DVDs don’t have region blocking. Look into investing in out-of-print titles that are unlikely to receive re-releases (I’ve recently acquired every Pedro Almodovar film on DVD, and it was not easy for some of those movies, let me tell you!) Have a back-up option just in case the media monopoly of the day decides it’s not financially feasible to allow you to watch that thing you love. The digital-only model isn’t just bad for customers: it’s utter bullsh*t for art!
And for all the stuff that’s not available anymore and will never again be accessible? Well, that’s a whole other conversation…
Header Image Source: Getty Images.