Bid farewell to your collection of movies, books and music. In another 25 years—maybe sooner—shoppers won't own most of the digital media they consume. So there's no way to save your library for future generations.
Purchases of digital media have been skyrocketing in recent years. Digital movie sales increased 47 percent in 2013 to nearly $1.2 billion, according to the Digital Entertainment Group, while Nielsen found streaming-music consumption rose 32 percent, for a total 118.1 billion streams. E-book sales are up 45 percent since 2011 and now represent 20 percent of the market, reports the Association of American Publishers.
A quarter-century down the line, analysts say, there's little reason to expect that the consumer will be more often flipping the pages of an e-book on their tablet computer than picking up a hardcover, and streaming video through their Web-enabled TV rather than turning on their Blu-ray player. But the shift is likely to have far-reaching consequences. "Our traditional assumptions of ownership are really frustrated by these digital distribution models," said Aaron Perzanowski, an associate professor of law at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
It's worth noting that even now, you don't "own" an e-book or MP3, per say—you're licensing the right to enjoy it, with certain restrictions. "Retailers still have a Buy button, so consumers think they're actually buying something," said Matthew Kelly, an attorney specializing in intellectual property with Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads in Philadelphia. Future generations will be more aware they don't own media, he said, although they may also care less about that distinction.
Subscription-based models a la Netflix or Rdio—where users pay a regular fee for access to the service's library without owning the movies or music—will be increasingly dominant, said Dina Leytes, practice group chair of intellectual property and new media for Griesing Law in Philadelphia. Faster Web connectivity will make it easier to stream media seamlessly, and users won't have to worry about storage. "We're definitely seeing a trend already, where consumers are moving away from owning that content," she said.
Prices could be tempered with ads or other, behind-the-scenes business arrangements that net some titles or subscriptions for free. "We used to have to make conscious choices about what we acquired," said Perzanowski. Increasingly, "content is just sort of free-floating in the atmosphere for us to access, in some cases whether we want it or not." Streaming models make it easier for companies to promote particular content—similar to the free U2 album Apple automatically sent all iTunes users.
Less certain are the rights consumers will have over the digital media they do purchase.
Experts say they expect some relaxing on restrictions of access. "Now, buying a Kindle or a Nook, you're sort of locking yourself into buying a lifetime of books from a single retailer," said Kelly. In the future, restrictions could ease to allow Amazon shoppers to read on a device from Barnes & Noble or another third-party manufacturer.
Industry groups are likely to be more lax about small-scale sharing, too. People will have a little more freedom to say, share an e-book with a friend, as regulators focus more on halting piracy, said Laurence Pulgram, chair of the copyright litigation group with Fenwick & West in San Francisco.
State laws will offer more guidance on passing along any digital content amassed. "People who own digital-content libraries are going to die, and there's already a question of what happens to those digital libraries and collections," said Perzanowski. "There's still a lot of uncertainty around that issue." Earlier this year, Delaware became the first state to give account holders the power to bequeath digital assets, and it's likely other states will put similar laws in play.
But the right to resell digital content—that e-book you won't reread, or a digital album that's no longer to your taste—still may not be a possibility, however. "There's no legal way to ever transfer, certainly not for compensation, your digital assets," said Bobby Rosenbloum, shareholder and co-chairman of Atlanta Entertainment Practice. That lack of a cheap secondary market is part of the reason more video games, textbooks and other media are going digital, and any efforts to allow buyer's to resell content is likely to face fierce industry pushback, he said.