Digital Ownership and the Right to Repair

Aaron Perzanowski, JD, joins Michigan Minds to talk about digital ownership, the tradeoffs that occur when purchasing digital products instead of physical, and issues that consumers should be aware of involving user constraints, permanence, and privacy. Perzanowski is the Thomas W. Lacchia Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School, and teaches and writes about the intersection of intellectual and personal property law.

Perzanowski looks at ownership, noting the  tradeoffs involved when deciding whether to purchase something in its digital or physical form. When consumers ownphysical copies of a book, they are able to do what they please with that book after purchase—including reselling it, lending it out, or donating it. Since digital goods don’t operate under those same rules and consumer rights are far more restricted, e-book distributors like Amazon have the ability to limit book sharing, reselling, or even keeping the book. 

“I think we see a real difference there in terms of reliability, control and ultimately the consumer’s independence with respect to those items,” Perzanowski says. 

He also  discusses why “buying” something means less than it used to. He explains that when we think about buying something, that language comes from a tangible analog era, where the word “buy” or “own” had a clear and consistent meaning across the consumer economy. Since the growth of digital ownership and subscription-based platforms, however, the definition of “owning” something has changed. 

“I think there’s a really big gap between what consumers think they’re getting when they buy a digital good and what they actually get.”

While there are benefits to digital ownership, including accessibility, consumers should be aware of issues around user constraints, permanence, and privacy. New smart appliances, electronics, vehicles, and other goods have network connections and software code with conditions attached to them that the consumer may not realize. Perzanowski offers the example of a car, where the consumer may have to pay a monthly subscription fee to use smart features like heated seats, or having to ensure printer cartridges are full so that scanning abilities work. 

“There’s a sense that if you buy something, you ought to be kind of operating independently from the seller. But that’s just a really complicated dynamic today, because the line between products and services has gotten really blurry.”

In a book he coauthored, The End of Ownership, Perzanowski says  that introducing aspects of private property and ownership into the digital marketplace would offer both legal and economic benefits—but most importantly, it would affirm our sense of self-direction and autonomy, enabling us to enjoy the benefits of consumer independence without having to rely on or be tied to companies that retain ownership of the products we buy.

“Part of what property gives us, what ownership gives us, is a sense of independence in the world, a sense that we don’t have to ask permission, we don’t have to rely on third parties that might not share our best interests,” he says. 

But although there are benefits to ownership, Perzanowski notes that it may not always be the best decision, financially or environmentally. Instead of owning a car, consumers might choose to use more environmentally friendly ways to get around, like carpooling or public transportation. 

“There are economic and environmental reasons that we ought to encourage more sharing and cooperation, right? Carpools are great. It’s not the case that everybody needs to own their own vehicle. Public transportation is great. There’s a big advantage to putting 60 people on a bus instead of having 60 people driving around in their own vehicles.”

“What people can do, I think, in their own lives though, is actually really simple—think more carefully about your choices. Think more carefully about the long-term implications of those little things that we all do every day… .There’s also, beyond the kind of individual level, a kind of collective impact that I think is really important for people to confront. One thing we haven’t talked much about is the sort of environmental impact of this kind of disposable consumerism that we’re promoting here, that companies are promoting, especially with respect to their resistance to repair.”