On Wednesday, a man went viral after posting his dispute with Apple over three movies that he’d previously purchased that suddenly disappeared from his iTunes library. Many people took it as an opportunity to remember that ownership is dead and we’re all just renting. It’s also an opportunity to remember that’s not exactly the case.
Ander G da Silva posted his correspondence with Apple customer service at the perfect time. The big iPhone reveal event was happening, his tweet was noticed and people got angry. He explained that three movies he’d “bought” through iTunes disappeared from his library and shared an email from Apple that explained that content was no longer being offered in the iTunes store by the content provider. He was offered a free movie rental with a value of up to $5.99 for his trouble. He was understandably upset about this low ball offer to make him go away.
Numerous outlets picked up Silva’s story and used it as a moment to remind people they don’t really own what they buy on iTunes, they’re just licensing it. Film lovers seized the moment to tweet their preference for buying physical media. Edgelords on Reddit rolled their eyes with “duh, everyone knows that” missives. These reactions are simultaneously correct and a little overblown.
The fact is, you can keep the shows and movies you purchase on iTunes—even if the content provider removes the titles from their catalog.
There is a legitimate philosophical argument to be had around digital rights management, what it means to own something, and the deceptive use of the term “buy.” This argument was a lot more prominent when piracy was more popular and streaming hadn’t become so common. But as it is today, you can buy a digital file of a movie from Apple and save it to your hard drive.
You can find detailed instructions for transferring your iTunes library here, but just know that it’s really as simple as finding the iTunes folder where your media is stored and dragging it over to the hard drive. The one thing to keep in mind is that all your purchases might not be stored locally. Especially if you made a purchase using the Apple TV, it may only be stored in the cloud. In that case, just go to Store > Purchased in the iTunes menu. You should see a list of your purchases. Find the one you want to download and click its “iCloud Download” button.
I still have backups of MP3's from the late ‘90s and used to be extremely precious about keeping my media files on multiple hard drives. Admittedly, as streaming has become more convenient, I don’t keep up with those backups like I should. People who primarily go through Apple TV may not even know that backups are possible.
None of this totally negates the point that ownership as a concept is dying. If we’re talking about a DVD or Blu-ray, all I’d have to say is: Buy the DVD, now you own it. But DVD’s don’t last forever and are vulnerable to damage. Arguably, a digital file that you periodically move from one form of storage to another is an even stronger form of ownership. The problem is DRM.
Apple uses DRM to keep files proprietary to its products and to appease content makers’ worries about privacy. DRM is a scourge. But breaking DRM isn’t the worst thing in the world—even if it isn’t exactly legal. But it is perfectly legal for me to point you to a service like TunesKit that will remove the DRM and convert the file into a more universal format. Unfortunately, DRM changes all the time, has to be reverse-engineered, and workarounds have to be updated. TunesKit currently requires some pain-in-the-ass troubleshooting to work on High Sierra, and new Mac OS update is coming later this month.
Everyone is right to worry that this kind of complicated lunacy is bad for consumers, and everyone’s right that the guy who lost his movies got screwed. What’s more, every service you buy digital movies from is going to have different annoyances and rights. But if you use iTunes, just know that you should go ahead do the backup now.