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Adam Banks on dig­i­tal

con­tent’s shelf life

Ama­zon’s vic­tory over Nook in the ebook mar­ket is a re­minder that, in the dig­i­tal world, pay­ing for some­thing doesn’t al­ways mean you get to keep it

Kin­dle or Nook? Ebooks were mostly one or the other, un­til, in March, the book fi­nally shut on Nook. With losses spook­ing in­vestors, the plat­form’s owner, Barnes & Noble, said it would no longer sell Nooks or books in the UK. Users who chose it are stuck with de­vices that can’t ac­cess new con­tent. In short, it’s a tick-tock trap for Nook book pick­ers tricked by fickle Nook book back­ers – bad news for ev­ery­one but Dr Seuss fans.

The pos­si­bil­ity of con­tent be­com­ing ob­so­lete is older than elec­tron­ics. Around the turn of the 20th cen­tury, hand-cranked wax cylin­der record­ings could only be played on the ap­pro­pri­ate ma­chine, which in turn was use­less for cylin­ders in the new for­mats that of­ten ap­peared. Any­one with a VHS tape col­lec­tion will sym­pa­thise. Today, it’s not only in­no­va­tion that ren­ders con­tent un­playable. Geoblock­ing is one ex­am­ple: like UK DVD play­ers re­fused to show US discs, HBO makes Brits wait to watch YouTube clips of John Oliver. He’s our co­me­dian, dammit!

App stores brought a more in­sid­i­ous risk: if an app is with­drawn by its de­vel­oper, you may find you can’t re­in­stall it from the cloud. Worse, iTunes au­dio­books came with this fail built in: they didn’t show up in the Pur­chased tab of the Mu­sic or iTunes apps. That’s re­cently been fixed, so you can re­down­load them if you can ac­cess your iTunes ac­count. Ap­ple tries to en­sure you don’t lose this, us­ing two-fac­tor au­then­ti­ca­tion to pre­vent you be­ing hacked, and an ac­count re­cov­ery process if you mess that up.

Providers aren’t al­ways so ac­com­mo­dat­ing. Talk­ing of Ama­zon, shop­per Greg Nel­son found his ama­zon.co.uk ac­count blocked, as re­ported by the Guardian, be­cause he’d

The pos­si­bil­ity of con­tent be­com­ing ob­so­lete is older than elec­tron­ics

re­turned too many items: about 10% of the 343 he’d bought. His gift card bal­ance im­me­di­ately be­came worth­less.

Can they do that? The Con­sumer Rights Act 2015 re­quires that any po­ten­tially un­fair terms are clearly pre­sented up front, but Ama­zon’s pol­icy is not – and might be un­law­ful if it was, be­cause it would limit by im­pli­ca­tion the cus­tomer’s statu­tory rights to re­turn un­wanted or faulty goods.

Again, this isn’t new. In a suc­ces­sion of ‘ban­ning’ con­tro­ver­sies, gamers were locked out of their pur­chases for ar­bi­trar­ily judged in­frac­tions. In 2012, Elec­tronic Arts’ Ori­gin plat­form and Valve’s Steam both re­vised their poli­cies af­ter con­sumer cam­paigns. Ama­zon seems to have no such plans.

Nook own­ers can still read their books, if they fol­lowed emailed in­struc­tions quickly enough. But there’s a deep irony in Nook giv­ing up just as Ap­ple pays a $450m fine for fix­ing the prices of ebooks to com­pete with Ama­zon. Who’s the mo­nop­o­list here?

In­creas­ingly, con­tent is rented rather than bought. Maybe we want it that way. Or maybe we’ve come to sus­pect ‘ buy­ing’ no longer means any­thing. If you pay to own some­thing, you ex­pect to keep it, just like the books on your shelves. Un­less tech firms and the law can do more to guar­an­tee that, it’s hard to see any fu­ture in pay­ing for con­tent at all.


Adam is Ap­ple to the core, hav­ing re­ported on the world of Macs since the 1990s. As a writer, de­signer, art di­rec­tor and print pro­duc­tion con­trac­tor, he di­vides his time be­tween the North­ern Pow­er­house and the Cre­ative Cloud.

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