I I “bought” the first season of The Walking Dead from Amazon.com. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the graphic novels, so I wanted to reward the creators by legally watching the television adaptation. Sure, it would have been trivially easy for me to download torrents of each episode, and in many ways it would have been far easier for me to watch the torrents on whatever device I choose. Amazon requires that I either be connected to the Internet to stream the video, or use the Windows-only “Unbox” software to download the videos to a Windows-only PC or limited set of “compatible” portable devices. We have only Macintosh and Linux computers in our house, so the options afforded to us by Amazon are considerably limited.

I understood all of this when I “purchased” the videos, and the platform limitations are not the specific point of complaint in this post. Rather, it’s Amazon’s claim that I “own” the videos. Answers.com defines “ownership” as “1) The state or fact of being an owner. 2) Legal right to the possession of a thing.” The reality, though, is that I do not have a legal right to the videos I purchased from Amazon. Rather, I have a legal right to the viewing of those videos. From Amazon.com’s explanation of my “Rights and Requirements”:

Purchase Details

When you buy a video, your viewing rights do not expire (except as provided in our Terms of Use). You can watch a video you own online and download it to 2 locations (TiVo DVRs and Windows PCs). You can also transfer a video you own to 2 portable devices. Note: Some new release movies will become unavailable for viewing or downloading for an unspecified period of time due to licensing restrictions. You will be notified about this before we process your order.

It cannot be reasonably claimed that I own the videos. I cannot loan them to a friend. I do not enjoy the principle of the First Sale doctrine, which means I cannot sell the videos when I no longer need them. They will neither appreciate nor depreciate in value over time. I cannot choose how to enjoy viewing the videos. And in the future, there’s no guarantee that Amazon will even support these videos as the state of the art of video streaming changes: how long do you think Amazon will support the “legacy” format used by these videos as newer technologies become standard?

I “own” the videos insofar as Amazon permits me to view the videos, and then only on devices not proscribed by Amazon. This is a very different thing than owning the videos themselves.

This subtle shift in language is disingenuous and dangerous. To claim that I “own” the videos is flat-out wrong. I understand that it would be awkward for Amazon to declare on the video detail page that I have legally purchased the right to view these videos in accordance with the limitations defined by Amazon’s Video on Demand service; but it seems even worse to me as a consumer to mislead me about the nature of my purchase.

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