Strategist, Speaker, Designer, Instigator

Access is the new ownership, redux [post 7/100]

A couple of years ago, I did a panel at MIPCOM called “Access is the new Ownership” – it was all about how consumer attitudes to media have shifted over the years and how content owners’ business models need to follow suit. Essentially the logic goes like this:

  • People want to watch/listen to the content they love.
  • Most people do not understand the byzantine maze that is international content rights negotiation and management, so don’t understand why they’re not allowed to watch, e.g., the season premiere of Game of Thrones in the UK at the same time that it’s aired in the US.
  • Lots of people consume this content illegally, but research has suggested that at least some of those people would be willing to pay for the content if they could.
  • Thus, content rights holders would do well to invest in giving people ways to buy the content they want, when they want it, rather than spending it on taking legal action against the ‘pirates’ who consume content that they often can’t legally buy.

This seems like a fairly straightforward line of logic, but the reality is that the TV content world is underpinned by an incredibly complex system of rights and release windows that’s evolved organically over its entire history, and it’s having a difficult time adjusting to the realities of a world where pretty much any piece of content can be made available on the internet seconds after it’s released, anywhere in the world. The shift is difficult, because it’s a matter of relinquishing control for the owners of the content.

[News flash: the end-consumer (i.e. most of us) have never actually owned the media we’ve bought. If you read the fine print on your records, CDs, DVDs, etc., there have always been rules about how you can view, screen, distribute the media you’ve bought. You’ve only ever really leased it.]

Ownership of physical objects, on the other hand, has generally been absolute. And ownership implies control. This is another way of thinking about the challenge I’ve been writing about over the past several posts – this transition that’s coming as we add a digital component to everyday household objects. Also what Tom wrote about, that EULAs transform ownership into hire purchase. And the shift is every bit as tricky, because (again) it’s about control.

I’ve already mentioned the example of the iron a few times – as soon as I’ve bought and paid for it, I can do whatever I like with it – I can iron clothes, I can use it as a doorstop, I can use it as a weapon, I can make grilled cheese sandwiches with it; whatever my imagination can come up with, legalities notwithstanding. But if it’s a ‘smart’ iron, it will have its own ideas about what it’s meant to do, and I might well find myself at odds with it. I might even lose it entirely – a friend of mine is working on a project that tracks the usage of various kinds of small appliances (like power tools) to create a neighbourhood sharing programme based on availability. So if I don’t iron for a while, my iron might tell my neighbours that it wants to go to a new home.

And what about a house? The fact that I own my home means that I can do what I like with it – of course I can come and go as I like, and I can also give access to others however I choose to. I can decorate it, I can sell it, I can rent it, I can knock it down (it’s not listed). It’s mine and I can do as I please. But once the house is fully connected, various bits of it might have their own ideas of when the lights should be on or off, or how warm it needs to be. What if I inherit a house from someone else, and they’ve customised it to their tastes and I can’t work out how they’ve done it? What if my locks turn on me as Joe Chip’s did on him?

I might be OK having a subscription to Spotify or Amazon Prime, where I get access to loads of content that I never really own, but I’m not sure I’m ok with having the same kind of relationship with my vacuum cleaner or my washing machine.  Does this mean that some things just shouldn’t be ‘smart’? Not necessarily. I bring this up because it’s a facet of the challenge that isn’t necessarily obvious at first glance, but can become pretty unsettling once you think about it.

So what’s the answer? Maybe those of us (companies, designers, inventors, technologists) in the digital world have gotten used to having control over the things that we make, and the ways people use them. As I said in Friday’s post, maybe this is at the heart of the new challenge. Maybe we need to give up more control than we’re comfortable with, just like our media-world friends.