All I Want for Christmas Is To Own the Experience

Holiday shopping sure has changed. This year, my shopping list includes all things digital — a TiVo box, some DVDs, perhaps even a digital camera. A generation ago, consumer goods did not come with microprocessors. Back then, once you bought something, you owned it. You could use it however you wanted without ever worrying about the manufacturer.

As a kid, if I pulled the head off of a Mickey Mouse doll and put it onto a Barbie doll body dressed in G.I. Joe clothes, it was okay. I didn’t think like an intellectual property attorney, who knows that this behavior could result in a derivative work requiring permission from the copyright holders to create it. Even if Disney, Mattel and Hasbro would never provide such permission, it really didn’t matter because they could not effectively control what a five-year old did once the products left the store.

Fortunately for my childhood memories, they didn’t really care either. But in the digital age where everything is connected, it’s another toy story altogether.

Who Owns Your DVD Player?

Parents with young children know that the only proper way to watch a movie is to view one scene over and over and over again. This means getting rid of the VCR and converting those videos to DVDs. Why? Because video cassettes wear out from frequent rewinding. Parents wear out too, and eventually purchase the DVD version of the movie.

When you bought a video tape you owned it. If you did not want your child to see previews of inappropriate movie trailers, you could just record over them or fast-forward past them. Not so with DVDs. Editing a DVD is not permitted, and even for the outlaws among us it’s not easy.

Now, each time your four-year old wants to watch the puppet show scene from “The Sound of Music,” you have to watch the FBI warning, watch the movie trailers and advertising, and then navigate the menus. You cannot fast-forward to the menu because DVD players run programs from the DVDs that tell it what you can and cannot do. Thus, you don’t really own the movie or the experience.

I admit it, I just cannot do without my TiVo. I love to fast-forward through commercials. Of course with TiVo, fast-forwarding is not instantaneous — skipping through a commercial break takes up to ten seconds and you have to pay attention or you’ll fast-forward through the show. TiVo knows this, so it started selling ads that pop up when it knows you’re paying attention — during fast-forwarding. This does not make me happy.

Thankfully, my current Tivo box does not have this feature. However, TiVo can download new versions of its software anytime it wants and I can’t stop it. I could disconnect the TiVo box from the phone line, but then I’d never have current program listings. That means TiVo owns the box and also the experience.

Disposable Digital Cameras

Since it is the holiday season, I guess we’ll have to cut TiVo and the movie studios a break. They provide the content we’re demanding along with the software and network to deliver it. In return, we accept that the content is delivered on their terms. But how about content we create ourselves?

When I take pictures with my digital camera, I own the pixels, right? Not if Pure Digital Technologies has its way. They produce the Dakota “disposable digital camera” for various photo shops. With this camera, you take 25 shots then return the camera for “developing.”

The camera costs $11 and the “developing” costs another $11. So what is disposable about the camera? It’s digital, so no film gets used. It’s hard to make money selling cameras for $11, but easy if you sell the same camera over and over and charge consumers for “developing.” You can delete the last picture taken, but not scroll through the others, because they really need the camera back.

Some people have figured out how to hack an interface to the flash memory of the camera so they can get their pictures out and reuse the camera. In response to such reports, the manufacturer made newer versions harder to access, to ensure customers cannot get to their content without paying for it. So with a disposable digital camera, you don’t own the camera or your content. You only get to experience it after you pay another fee.

What About Business?

Even more than consumers, businesses need to care about owning their experience and their data. An organization’s data has value that translates to its balance sheet and is in many ways essential to its operations. If the organization thinks it owns its data but does not, that can be a problem. models that rely on controlling their customer’s data. If company data is tied up in a proprietary format, the company does not really “own” it (even though they might possess physical disk backups) if full access to the data requires the ability to get at it without intermediation.

Of course, ownership does not require that the owners actually do everything themselves, just that they have the flexibility to retain any vendor to handle their data.

Some companies outsource data management and even application management. The application service provider model is becoming increasingly popular and makes a lot of sense, as it allows a company to concentrate on what they do best, while someone else worries about how to allocate hardware and software resources to meet the company’s changing requirements.

However, unless there is a mechanism for the company to get its data in a format that it can use independently, it doesn’t really own the data.

All I Want for Christmas

I’m no Scrooge, but is it too much to ask that my hard earned cash gets me the freedom to do what I want with what I buy? For some products, it apparently is. Maybe this year, I’ll just curl up with a good book and put some actual film in my old camera. Personally, that sounds pretty relaxing.

However, if you and your business need your data and need to control the experience, keep a close eye on what you are really getting. And don’t worry if it makes you a little nostalgic.

Phil Albert, a LinuxInsider columnist, is a patent attorney and partner with the San Francisco office of the intellectual property law firm Townsend and Townsend and Crew LLP.

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