Rethink Digital Ownership

Rethink Digital Ownership

The Shifting Definition of Ownership in the Digital Age

Have a Nice Future Podcast

On this week’s episode of Have a Nice Future, Gideon Lichfield and Lauren Goode dive into the topic of ownership in the digital age. They are joined by Aaron Perzanowski, a law professor at the University of Michigan and coauthor of two books on our changing understanding of ownership – “The End of Ownership” and “The Right to Repair”. Together, they discuss the diminishing control consumers have over their purchased goods and the potential for reclaiming ownership rights from corporations.

The Erosion of Ownership

Perzanowski began studying ownership in the digital economy about 15 years ago, when the shift from physical formats to digital media was just starting. He saw the erosion of ownership in the context of digital media and later noticed similar trends affecting physical devices like smartphones and cars. As digital media and physical devices became more intertwined, ownership became a more complex concept.

For example, digital media platforms such as iTunes allowed users to buy and download music, but subsequent changes in technology and platform policies caused users to lose access to their purchased music. Similarly, advancements in car technology and telematics systems have made it harder for independent repair shops to access diagnostic data, limiting consumer choice in repairs.

The Right to Repair

The right to repair movement advocates for legislation that ensures consumers can easily repair the goods they own. It aims to counter the trend of corporations making repairs increasingly difficult for consumers. The movement has gained traction in Massachusetts, where a landmark right-to-repair law was passed in 2012, requiring automakers to provide parts, tools, and documentation to consumers and independent repair shops. However, manufacturers have been pushing back against such legislation, leading to legal battles and ongoing debates.

Perzanowski notes that right to repair is not just about the ability to fix gadgets but also about access to data and control over the goods we own. The movement is driven by a desire for more transparency, choice, and autonomy in the face of technology advancements.

Nicolas Cage Image: Nicolas Cage, a subject of Aaron Perzanowski’s passion and exploration of ownership

The Challenges of Digital Ownership

The rise of streaming platforms and cloud-based services has revolutionized access to media and content. While this offers convenience and broad access, it also introduces a loss of control over content. Perzanowski highlights the potential risk of losing access to cultural products due to the disappearance of physical formats and the move towards digital ownership.

Perzanowski shares his personal experience of rewatching every Nicolas Cage movie and how he encountered difficulty finding older movies that were not available through streaming services. This example underscores the broader concern that certain cultural products could be lost if physical formats disappear entirely in favor of digital distribution.

The Politics of Ownership

The issues of digital ownership and the right to repair transcend traditional political divides. While consumer advocacy and protection are often associated with progressive values, the ability to control one’s possessions and access to repairs resonates across political ideologies. The right to repair movement has garnered support from various stakeholders, from farmers with equipment repair needs to average smartphone users.

However, achieving widespread protections for consumers and establishing clear regulations will require concerted efforts and legislative action. Perzanowski remains cautiously optimistic about the prospects for federal right-to-repair legislation, but he acknowledges the challenges of combating corporate lobbying and misinformation campaigns.

The Future of Ownership

The future of ownership in the digital age remains uncertain. Perzanowski remains skeptical due to the prevalence of troubling trends that prioritize corporate control over consumer autonomy. While there is potential for progress on specific issues like right to repair, he believes the broader question of ownership is more challenging to address comprehensively.

Perzanowski suggests that future policy interventions could provide targeted improvements for consumers, but the fundamental concept of ownership may require a broader reconsideration. He emphasizes the consumer’s ability to shape the marketplace by supporting alternatives that align with their values and encourages policymakers to prioritize consumer rights and options.


The evolving definition of ownership in the digital age raises questions about autonomy, control, and consumer protections. The right to repair movement and discussions surrounding digital media highlight the ongoing struggle between corporate interests and consumer rights. While challenges persist, there is hope for progress in protecting consumer ownership and establishing a more equitable landscape. By advocating for legislation and supporting alternatives that prioritize consumer autonomy, individuals can contribute to shaping a future where ownership retains its intrinsic value.