Rent or Own

Posted on December 13, 2007. Filed under: Apple, Media, Musings |

When do I want to “rent” something, and when do I want to “own” it?First, let’s define those terms for the purpose of this discussion, as they’ve been redefined from their accepted meaning recently. I’ll take the current corporate definitions as the minimal acceptable definitions:

To Rent: To purchase the right to view or listen to or otherwise enjoy media content for a short amount of time. This need not include multiple viewings, but it must ensure that I will be able to enjoy the content from start to finish at least once in the given timespan, in a “real world” where kids need to be put to bed, baked goods need to come out of ovens, parents call on the phone, and solicitors need to be scared off the front porch.

To Own: I have unlimited access to the media content over time. For the purpose of this discussion that need not include backing it up onto different media or playing it in a plethora of devices (although that does come into the more advanced discussion of this topic as “To Rent” often implies restricted devices whereas “To Own” need not).

The Need to Own

Category 1: Comfort Insurance

Eventually, for each of us, life turns south. Our dog dies, the house burns down, the wife takes the kids back east, and we write bad country songs. It is at this time, precisely, that we need our “comfort” items: Mom’s cooking, a warm blanket, that song that reminds us of a better time, or that song that pushes us further into our malaise in hopes of burning it all up at once.

It is also, not coincidentally, at this time that our ability to pay ongoing rental fees is most likely to cease. We’re spending all our time Fed-Exing mix tapes across the country, and have nothing left to spend for rentals.So, my first category of items I feel a need to own are those that I want to have with me in such a situation.

Category 2: Likely to Disappear

Eventually, for every company, life turns south. The cash cow product dies, key employees leave, the VCs take the kids back east, and they sell their customer database to a spam merchant for half a penny per name. It is at this time, precisely, that we choose not to weep for them and instead worry about what kinds of information they’d been keeping on us.

This is also the time that any content they claimed ownership of is likely to become unavailable, if not forever, at least until the spam merchant and the IP “holding company” sell the goods back to a legitimate business.Anything I want to refer people to, talk about in more than a “past tense”, and which are likely to be put in a semi-permanent “vault” with frozen former corporate leader heads, I want to own.

Category 3: Repeat Offenders

If a rental model implies a fee per viewing/listen, or a fee per timeframe, or even a measurable inconvenience per viewing/listen/timeframe (such as having to re-download something) then this third category comes into play. Many items I want to view/listen to over and over again. In a purely economic sense, these items often turn into “must own” item because I’m spending more (time or money) renting them than I would have to purchase them outright.

How This All Relates To Industries

The Music Industry

Music is special to me. It sits in the background of everything I do. As such, it holds a unique power to stir memories and emotions which no other media possesses. I listen to my music library often on weighted-shuffle (the songs I really like coming up more often than those I just kinda like), but other times will listen to a new album non-stop for several days and in heavy rotation for several weeks, or will listen to specific mixes to get me out of a funk. It falls into all three categories above. A day without my music is torture. How did we survive without iPods all these many centuries?

Some music is only ever listened to once. I never know, however, if the song I am about to listen to is a one-time-listen or a listen-to-forever song until after I’ve heard it once and then come back (or not) to listen to it again. There are many songs from my youth that I’d never expect to have wanted to hear again, that I come back around to later on. The rule here is that a vast majority of music I hear and enjoy for some small amount of time I will want to come back around to years later. So, as a rule, music is to own, not to rent.

The Movie Industry

Movies are, by and large, view-once events for me. There are the odd movies which I want to see again and again (Fight Club is one, for instance), but by and large all which matters in terms of availability is that the movie is available when I first watch it (and if it isn’t, well, it doesn’t get watched). There are exceptions to this, but they are few and far between and so can be treated as exceptions rather than the rule.

I know, there are “movie buffs” who find the time to sit in a dark room concentrating on the same movie over and over again. For them, obviously, the question comes out differently.A lot of the enjoyment I get from a movie is just knowing where it’s going and experiencing the journey into the unknown once. Once I know how it ends, a huge amount of the joy of the journey is gone. I hate movie “spoilers” for this very reason.

For me, where the equation changes is family movies. We have kids, and kids tend to be more watch-over-and-over-again viewers. It’s in their natures. I will specifically not draw the obvious connection here to movie buffs, but the reader might take that as an exercise. So, “family” movies tend to be bought, and to sit on the DVD shelf waiting for the kids to want to see it. Also, “really good” movies tend to earn their place on this shelf, in hopes of one day sharing them with the kids; this is probably a waste of money and space, as by the time they’re mature enough to watch the movie there’s a pretty good chance they’ll only watch it once too … but such is life.


Some would naturally place television secondary to feature films. It’s designed for a rental type of model. I put it more on par with feature films, with one caveat: the time commitment to re-view a television series is much larger than a feature film, and the time commitment to re-view a television episode is much shorter. “Reruns” are generally scorned: if I’ve seen it once, there’s not much point in seeing it again, and in character-developing series the rerun often doesn’t fit in with the story arc I’m into in any case.

Still, some series, like Firefly, proudly sit on my DVD shelf, waiting for a week where the family has nothing more pressing going on and we can all sit down over a series of nights to watch the crew flitter about space.In general, though, TV is for renting. That’s how it was designed, and that’s how it plays in my mind.

Words on Dead Trees

Books are like movies. Once I know where the book is going, there’s not much point in continuing. The dedicated time commitment is just far too great to take on without a reward at the end. I tend not to refer books to friends or family other than by title (I mean, come on: you can pick the book up for $5 or less in paperback, why worry about borrowing my copy?)As with movies and TV shows, there are many who disagree with me.

Binary Encoded Operational Instructions

Okay, this is going to seem like a tangent to some folks, but the same rules apply to computer software. If it’s software I’m going to want to use again later (because it’s useful) or which is needed to access my own data, I want to own it. If it’s software I’m going to enjoy like a feature film (play a game through once, and nothing significant is different any subsequent time), I’d rather just rent it.

Unfortunately, all software is really just rented. Even if you “own” it, there’s no guarantee that the next computer you buy, or the next OS update, will continue to run it properly, and despite all best intentions I don’t today have a 486 sitting around to run Word 2.0.

What it All Means

I think many people are in the same boat as I with music, although a minority see no lasting value of it. For us, music should be bought freely, enjoyed without strings attached. A “subscription” model (essentially, all-you-can-eat rental) makes sense for new music discovery, but it violates two of the three criteria above (it’s not there when life gets rough, and it’s not there when the company offering it goes away — although in the latter case there is a high likelihood that you’d be able to find another company offering it).

Movies, TV, and books are more controversially split. I’m not sure where the “majority” lies in those three industries, but my gut feeling is that it’s not anywhere near as overwhelming a majority as in music. Many people get a great deal of enjoyment from a wall of DVD cases. Still, what’s important to the proverbial You is what makes the most sense to that You. Use the criteria above, or come up with your own, to decide where you stand, and hope that “majority rule” doesn’t take your preferred option away.

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