When you purchase a movie from Amazon Instant Video, you’re not buying it, exactly. It’s more like renting indefinitely.
This distinction matters if your notion of “buying” is that you pay for something once and then you get to keep that thing for as long as you want. Increasingly, in the world of digital goods, a purchasing transaction isn’t that simple.
There are two key differences between buying media in a physical format versus a digital one. First, there’s the technical aspect: Maintaining long-term access to a file requires a hard copy of it—that means, for example, downloading a film, not just streaming from a third party’s server. The second distinction is a bit more complicated, and it has to do with how the law has shaped digital rights in the past 15 years. It helps to think about the experience of a person giving up CDs and using iTunes for music purchases instead.
“In the good old days, you purchased a CD, which meant that you owned the medium outright and had an authorized copy that you could do anything you liked with, subject to copyright,” said Dan Hunter, the dean of Swinburne Law School. “For example, you could give it away to a friend, or resell it, or whatever. These days we live in a world where we generally license copyright content, like games and music. This means you’re given a limited right to do things with the content—generally this is limited to playing it on a small number of devices—and you definitely can’t resell the content or even give it away. You haven’t really bought the song, you’ve bought a contract to play the thing for a while.”