Do you actually own the digital goods you’ve purchased?

Imagine a world where everything outside of family and friendships is commoditized as a part-time, rented experience. Your travel, your property, your entertainment, your wardrobe, it’s all access-based. And the moment you stop paying it disappears. Should we be worried about this access-based economy?

To the generations that know the joy of owning and caring for personal property (no matter how small the ownership), this seems like a nightmare. But to the newcomers that want to freely float around without the weight of ownership tying them down, the access-based economy is beautiful.

As a Millennial that has yet to accrue a lot of owned-items, I’d normally lean toward the access-based evolution. However, there are already warning signs of the drawbacks from this lifestyle.

Digital Faux-nership

Most media models have adopted the Pay-for-Unlimited-Access model – Apple News+ and The Wall Street Journal, Netflix and Hulu, Spotify and Apple Music, among many of their competitors. It’s how we’ve come to expect our media. Ryan had a different way of looking at these:

Two music streaming services at $10 a month each, let’s say for the next 50 years, puts me at $12,000 I will have paid for music streaming… Imagine a $12,000 record collection. That would be marvelous! And it would be a true joy passing that along to my kids and grandkids. What do I get from $12,000 of streamed music? At most, I could pass down a few kick-ass playlists I’ve curated over the years.


Although Ryan points out some of the troubling math behind streaming, this isn’t necessarily the bone I want to pick with faux-nership, considering everyone knows they aren’t buying this music. My issue remains with the digital media we can buy but never fully own.

Your iTunes movies, your Kindle books—they’re not really yours. You don’t own them. You’ve just bought a license that allows you to access them, one that can be revoked at any time… none has quite the punch of Microsoft [discontinuing their ebook division and] disappearing every single ebook from every one of its customers.

Microsoft will refund customers in full for what they paid, plus an extra $25 if they made annotations or markups. But that provides only the coldest comfort.

Brian Barrett, Wired

It’s a harsh reality of purchasing digital media that in no way reflects the physical world.

If our local bookstore closed down, the owner wouldn’t knock on our door demanding to remove previously purchased books from our shelves. So we do not anticipate this scenario in the context of our eBooks.

Rebecca Mardon, The Conversation

Microsoft’s not alone here. Apple came under fire in 2018 when users found out that moving to different countries meant you may not be able to bring your owned iTunes Movies with you due to complex, region-specific studio agreements.

I’m not happy that Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft get to decide whether or not I keep my media. What I dislike the most about my Amazon movie collection – of which I “own” around 95 films – is that there’s no democracy between platforms.

Originally intended as an antipiracy measure, DRM [digital rights management] now functions mostly as a way to lock customers into a given ecosystem, rather than reading or viewing or listening to their purchases wherever they want.

Brian Barrett, Wired

In an ideal world, we’d make the transition over to digital media on the blockchain.

Blockchain Media

Blockchain-based media companies like FilmChain, TaTaTu, OPUS, and Slate promise the ability to bring better revenue-sharing to artists, circumvent the region-specific distribution restrictions, and combat piracy.

Although we haven’t seen the big success moment in blockchain for books, music, or movies, there have been other successful transitions of physical goods to the digital world.

Fuel Games and CryptoKitties, using a crypto-method called NFTs (non-fungible tokens), have created multi-million-dollar digital trading card games that allow players to buy, trade, and own these digital assets.

We could apply NFTs to create scarcity of digital media, similar to the Disney Vault or book editions of the physical world. In this way, your digital copy of Avatar could actually gain value over time depending on demand.

I’m doubtful that we’ll see this transition to blockchain take place anytime soon since the centralization of media production and distribution is a huge money-making advantage for Disney, AT&T-Time Warner, Sony, and other companies with big influence.

Overall, the access-based economy is a momentous shift that goes beyond our digital media consumption. This is the bubbling of mass appeal.

Where do we go from here?

For the first time in modern history, Rifkin argues, ownership of physical property is seen as an albatross, and intangible ideas and expertise are the chief generators of wealth. This dramatic shift affects corporations as much as consumers: the world’s major companies are quickly shedding property holdings, factories, and other assets in favor of massive outsourcing and leasing. 

Rifkin warns of a dawning era in which giant access-providing companies are profiting from every aspect of human existence, while consumers own nothing. In this new economy, access-sellers will finally be able to commodify all of human experience.

Jeremy Rifkin, The Age of Access

Whereas McDonald’s built an empire owning property, Uber and Airbnb are building empires by owning nothing. And we’re likely to see many more companies adopt this model of creating access to things they do not own.

You’d think we’d all fear the loss of consumer ownership, considering we’ve long held that:

Ownership is the route to wealth.

This is why I’d rather we champion the tech companies that are actually making it easier to accrue ownership of value-appreciating goods:

These companies may not have the same guaranteed returns we’d like to see and are still risky bets. But, they at least offer an alternative for people that have long been excluded from ownership.

If ownership is how you get out of the lower-middle class cycle, then I applaud these companies that create opportunities for anyone to create wealth.