Ownership doesn’t seem like a philosophical hot potato, but the concept has grown morally and legally blurred over the past few decades. Much of the battle concerns digital content, including music, games, and movies. 

As Ubisoft chief Philippe Tremblay said in January, people need to get “comfortable” with not owning the things they buy. 

A Nuisance

Plenty of companies offer a rotating selection of media. Netflix and Disney+ are the obvious examples, but even video game companies do it. Sony will remove almost forty games from its PlayStation Plus service in mid-2024, while the retro title Watch Dogs gets an airing. The same thing can be seen in the wider entertainment industry.

In casino gaming, this idea has been around since the decade without any issue or pushback, and the online slots at Paddy Power rotate according to popularity and the time of year. The horror comes out at Halloween, for instance. The rest of the year sees new games added to the top of the page, where they find the most attention. 

Nobody believes that they own the slot machines they play online, of course, just as Netflix’s decision to remove 2012 from its service on May 31st is more of a nuisance than an impossibility. To paraphrase Tremblay, we’re only renting our time with John Cusack and Woody Harrelson.

Beyond subscription models, losing access to a paid-for product is mercifully rare. The Guardian reports that Telstra TV Box Office customers lost access to purchased movies unless they’d already moved to the related service Fetch (for $200).

Granted, Telstra may have had the right to do so based on its T&Cs (that everybody agreed to when signing up) – but is it appropriate to act based on a document that famously goes unread? Souls have been sold for less in the UK.

“Lose the Bias”

It’s easy to summarize the above in just one phrase, i.e., customers only own physical things, not the bytes in their mp3 libraries. However, even that doesn’t work. The Right to Repair debate implies that manufacturers own your real items, too. 

This stripping of ownership from all but rights-holders indicates a future in which everything is licensed according to a schedule and somebody else’s whims. Conceivably, the only way around this is for somebody to create their product, such as an original song.

Records player

Forbes contributor Zain Jaffer has the same opinion on ownership as Ubisoft’s Tremblay, especially about business. Digital assets in video games, like outfits, are hugely popular with younger people. Jaffer instructed readers to “lose the bias” against non-physical things.

Ultimately, “who owns what” is another battleground for different generations. Older people, who grew up with physical items, are more likely to care about tangible things. Younger ones, used to virtual avatars and worlds, may not care about physical ownership at all.

A phrase sometimes used in this conversation comes from the World Economic Forum and Danish politician Ida Auken – “you’ll own nothing and be happy”. Auken is talking about ride-sharing, shared workspaces, and a collaborative existence. 

However, in a world where we’re tethered to paragraphs of legalese, the sum of our possessions seems to amount to very little.