Napster's decision to offer subscription-based access to its music collection has set off a "rent vs. buy" debate about the ownership of content that has implications for all kinds of content, not just music. For $15 per month, Napster is offering unlimited access to its collection of 10,000 music tracks. Users can download the music to players as much as they like, but the catch is that they must maintain their subscription in order to continue to access the music. If the subscription isn't paid, access to the music is cut off. Contrast this with the iPod/iTunes model, where users buy music a track at a time, and acquire permanent access to it.
Within Outsell, this set off a discussion about the nature of "owning" content these days. Some extracts:
- One point of view is that the idea of "owning" music is obsolete or irrelevant as we move to an age of almost unlimited bandwidth. Content is like the municipal water supply: we all own the water we buy from the city, but that doesn't mean we want to store it in barrels around the house. What we want is reliable and instant access to water, not possession.
- One of us - the parent of teenagers - argued strongly that the iPod model of taking permanent "ownership" of the content is hardwired into the way people think about content. There's a psychic value to selecting, paying for, and taking ownership of individual pieces of music. For teens especially, buying music is an identity-building act that creates a more personal relationship to the music. In the water analogy, these content "owners" are like people who pay for bottled water despite the availability of perfectly good tap water at home.
- It's not just the bandwidth that's changing; it's the nature of content itself. In the case of scientific literature, for example, the idea of a journal article or a book as a permanent, fixed document might soon be obsolete. Such literature is inextricably bound up with the other literature it cites, and the literature citing it. Current knowledge on a topic is dynamic and not confined to a single document; in that environment access to the flow of knowledge is more important than ownership of a document that's just a snapshot of knowledge at a point in time.
We've concluded that all parts of the content industry are lined up along a "rent vs. buy" spectrum, but that the concept of owning content is slowly losing ground to other models of access.