‘My whole library is wiped out’: what it means to own movies and TV in the age of streaming services

What rights do you have to the digital movies, TV shows and music you buy online?

That question was on the minds of Telstra TV Box Office customers this month after the company announced it would shut down the service in June. Customers were told that unless they moved over to another service, Fetch, they would no longer be able to access the films and TV shows they had bought.

This isn’t simply a case of Netflix removing Friends from the service after its content agreement ran out. These were films and shows people had bought with the expectation they could watch them whenever they wanted – indefinitely.

Vicki Russell posted on X last week saying she was being asked by Telstra to pay $200 for Fetch to retain access to what she said was $2,500-worth of purchases.

“Years and years of purchasing movies and my whole library is just wiped out. What a shitty thing to do,” she posted.

She later said Telstra had contacted her and offered a free Fetch box, which she acknowledged was a “reasonable resolution”.

A spokesperson for Telstra said it was a rights issue, which meant customers had to move to a similar content service to keep accessing the content. Customers had not been able to make new purchases since the end of September last year, the spokesperson said, with customers being migrated to Fetch since December.

“We’ve partnered with Fetch as our new entertainment platform and the vast majority of movies or shows customers have bought on their Telstra TV Box Office can be migrated across,” the spokesperson said.

Content ‘may become unavailable’

In the age of VHS, DVDs and Blu-ray, when someone bought a movie from a store, it was theirs for as long as it was playable. And even in the digital era before streaming, people could – and generally still can – buy files of movies, TV shows and music. Barring the digital rights management locks some companies placed on those files, you could generally continue to play them for as long as you had a player that could read them.

Now firmly in the streaming age, ownership is largely subject to the terms and conditions people often do not read, a lecturer in computing and information systems at Melbourne University, Shaanan Cohney, said.

“Whenever you click to purchase or rent content online, there’s always a box somewhere saying terms and conditions apply – just like with everything else you do online.

“It is not reasonable to expect consumers to read these terms and conditions (but) in the case of Telstra TV box office, they had a whole section on how they were able to withdraw content.”

Such provisions are fairly standard among tech companies. Customers can rent or buy films via Amazon Prime, and the company’s terms of service states the content “will generally continue to be available to you for download or streaming … but may become unavailable … Amazon will not be liable to you”.

Apple’s iTunes – which allows users to download files they have bought – has a similar clause and says while the content is unlikely to become unavailable, people should “ensure your ability to continue enjoying content” by downloading all purchases to a device and backing up.

In March, game developer Ubisoft outraged hardcore fans of the 10-year-old online racing game The Crew when it shut down access to customers who had paid for the game and continued to play it. Ubisoft justified its move, saying it would allow the company to focus resources on newer or more popular titles.

The avenues of appeal are relatively limited. A spokesperson for the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) told Guardian Australia: “Businesses should not mislead consumers about their rights under Australian consumer law when goods and services are offered under a licensing arrangement.”

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‘Very clear disclosure’

Telstra’s announcement led many on X to suggest another avenue: online piracy.

Cohney said there is a strong moral argument – but not a legal one – to explain why people resort to downloading copyright-infringing content via torrent websites.

“This is not to suggest people should go out and do this but it certainly does add a more moral force to the proponents of piracy,” he said. “And I think the more media companies engage in this kind of bait and switch, the more piracy and these kinds of preservation efforts will become appealing to people.”

Coinciding with the arrival of streaming services in the 2010s, movie studios have used an anti-piracy law passed by the former Coalition government to force internet service providers in Australia to block thousands of piracy websites through court orders.

Users now need to use a virtual private network connection to access these sites, and rights holders argue this hurdle has substantially reduced piracy in Australia.

In order to pay content creators and keep consumer rights, content should be more easily portable between services so that a user doesn’t need to stay with the company they first bought through, Cohney said.

Some video game companies and music and movie services allow you to download a copy that doesn’t require a permanent connection to the owner of the service provider or the media owner, he said.

“Another approach is to indeed purchase physical copies.”

Cohney said a better way would be making it clearer to consumers what they are actually getting when they buy.

“It’s having mandatory rules around what kinds of things can be in the terms of conditions … If a provider wants to offer content in a way that is in violation of those, there has to be some substantial indication that it’s in the interests of the consumer as well as very clear disclosure of that particular change.”

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