What We Buy When We Buy Now

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Imagine you purchase a new book from Amazon. You visit Amazon.com, find a book that looks promising, click the familiar Buy Now button, wait a mere two days for Amazon Prime delivery, and promptly place that new volume on your bookshelf, waiting for the perfect rainy day to crack it open. The next morning, you wake up to find a book‐sized gap on your shelf. Your book has disappeared. Just then, you receive an email from Amazon customer service explaining that—at the copyright holder’s request—the book has been recalled.

Amazon informs you that it dispatched a drone to your home to silently and carefully retrieve the book while you slept in order to avoid any inconvenience. But not to worry, Amazon reassures you, your account has already been credited with a refund.

Most consumers would be outraged at such an intrusion, not only because of the physical violation it entails, but also because it contravenes some basic assumptions about the nature of personal property rights. When we buy a book, we own it; it is our property. And one right traditionally associated with personal property is the ability to keep the things you own for as long as you choose. They cannot be taken from you without your consent, certainly not by private actors for their own benefit. Yet something very similar happens online when consumers buy a product.

This Article presents the results of a study that demonstrates that a sizable percentage of consumers is misled with respect to the rights they acquire when they “buy” digital media goods. They mistakenly believe they can keep those goods permanently, lend them to friends and family, give them as gifts, leave them in their wills, resell them, and use them on their devices of choice.

Not only are consumers misled, they are misled about ownership rights that are important to them. A sizable percentage of consumers express a desire for those rights and many say they are willing to pay more to preserve them. Importantly for retailers and copyright holders, respondents in our study indicated that they would turn to streaming services and BitTorrent if they were unable to engage in the uses typically associated with personal property ownership.

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