Microsoft recently shut down the ebook section of its online store and made all purchased content unavailable. While the company issued full refunds to customers for all purchased books, the closure made it painfully clear: The majority of subscription services provide a license to use content, but you don’t actually own the content itself. And should a company decide to shut down a service, then all of that content could be gone forever.
Microsoft released a detailed FAQ that informed customers that no books would be available for purchase, rent, or pre-order after April 2, and that after July no books would be readable. In July, Microsoft would begin rolling out refunds. Not even free books survived the shutdown; the service itself closed its doors, which means no ebooks, paid or otherwise, would be available to customers.
You might be thinking that not all companies follow this policy. After all, doesn’t Netflix allow you to download content for offline viewing? And doesn’t Apple let you download and burn music?
Some companies do allow users to keep their downloaded content forever, even if that content otherwise disappears from the storefront. But there are also caveats to that ownership. If you’re interested in keeping your paid-for content forever, check out these services.
Numerous games have been pulled from the Steam storefront for a variety of reasons, but even if the game is no longer available for purchase, you will keep the copy you have in your library. In rare cases, the games you’ve purchased might not be available for download, but many times you will still be able to download titles long after they’ve stopped selling.
If you are unsure, pop in an external hard drive and download the games you’re afraid of losing.
GOG.com is built on the concept of DRM-free ownership. They present their storefront with the assurance that customers own a game free and clear once they purchase it. While there is always an argument to be made that only the develop actually owns the game–as in the actual code–your download of the game is yours forever, even if GOG.com one day disappears. As long as you have the files downloaded, they’re yours to keep and play.
You can download iTunes songs (until the service shuts down for good, anyway) and burn them to a disc. At that point, the media is yours forever. Even if it disappears from the storefront, it exists on physical media — and ultimately physical media is the single best way to guarantee ownership of any digital content. But more on that later.
When it comes to media other than music, things aren’t so clear. According to Apple’s Terms and Conditions, “You may burn an audio playlist of purchased music to disc for listening purposes up to seven times; this limitation does not apply to DRM-free Content. Other Content may not be burned to disc.”
The language within the Terms and Conditions indicates that apps and other content besides music is not yours, but rather licensed to you. Specifically in reference to ebooks, “… which means that you acquire a license to use the Content from Apple Distribution International, but the Content is licensed by the Publisher.” The content is licensed to you; you do not have ownership forever, which means there is no guarantee the books cannot be pulled off your devices.
An important distinction is in the language of Apple’s support page.
In legal terms, “can always” does not mean “will always.” However, it is rare that content is pulled off a device. Once downloaded, as long as you do not delete an app, you will likely be able to access it. Just ask one of the dozen people in the world that still have a device with the original Flappy Bird installed.
Archive.org is a treasure trove of DRM-free content. At the time of writing, a search for movies returns over 5.1 million results. One thing to keep in mind is that not all of these are feature films; in fact, only 6,405 items fall under the feature film category. That said, there is an astounding amount of legal digital content that you can download and watch without worry that you’re going to lose it.
Smashwords is an outlet mostly used for self-published authors, but many more well-known writers can also be found on the site. Smashwords prides itself on being a DRM-free service. Once you purchase a book on the site, it’s yours. It’s also a great way to discover new writers, as the front page of the site has a “Featured New Releases” section that grants a quick peek at the most recent releases.
Humble Bundle got its start as a video games distribution service. Customers would spend a certain amount and the majority would go to charity. In return, Humble Bundle would give them an assortment of DRM-free games. The service has since expanded into books, software, and much more. All of it is DRM-free, and all of it is based on a tiered pricing system. There are usually three pricing levels to choose from, and each one gives additional rewards from the one before it.
A Note Concerning Physical Media
A physical medium is the best way to ensure long-term ownership of digital media. Burning music and files to a CD ensures you retain ownership of the contents stored there, provided they do not have DRM protection. Any content with DRM protection will perform a “check” to certify that your license is still valid. If that check returns a negative answer, you lose access.
On the other hand, content without DRM will remain yours for as long as you have the files. Storing them on an external hard drive is another option, but it’s always good to have a physical backup.
Although Microsoft intends to issue full refunds to any customers for the content they lose access to, this isn’t something consumers should bank on other companies doing. It is far better to focus on purchasing content that you own outright, rather than something licensed just for temporary use.
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