To rent or to own? That is the question.

In a recent blog article, Kevin Kelly proposes that ownership is not as important as it once was and discusses the many benefits of renting, leasing, licensing and sharing compared to owning. Kelly discusses this notion both in the context of tangible goods and intangible goods.

In the article, Kelly is extremely thorough about listing the many benefits of renting or leasing tangible goods, such as cars, yachts, or even high-end luxury purses. However, what Kelly omits in his discussion is that property ownership is fundamental and critical to increasing one’s wealth. Property ownership is required to secure loans; the more assets one has, the greater the amount of credit a financial institution is likely to provide. Property ownership is also required in order to enable the owner to resell that property, whatever it may be, at a later date for a much higher value. If something is not owned, it cannot be resold. That said, in terms of tangible property, ownership is still very much important.

When it comes to intangible property, however, Kelly’s proposition that ownership is not as important as it once was, is much more pertinent and relevant. Intangible property usually refers to both artistic and commercial creations of the mind. While a patent market with the buying and selling of patents may be considered a vehicle for wealth creation in the future, it is unlikely that intangible property can currently be used to increase wealth in the same way that tangible property can. Many types of intangible property exist in digital form and are obtained easily by means of Internet downloads at the click of a button. Three examples are music, movies and books. The next few paragraphs will focus on whether or not the examples of music, movies and books are better to own than to rent.


Music in digital form can be rented, bought but not owned. Rhapsody is an example of a forum where music can be rented. With a Rhapsody subscription, users are allowed access to a giant library of music that is streamed over the Internet. The songs are not downloaded to your computer and exists only on the Rhapsody server. The Apple’s iTunes Store, on the other hand, is an example of a forum where music can be bought. Although the song that is downloaded can be placed on an unlimited number of iPods or portable music players, it can only be placed on a limited number of computers. In this sense, the song is not truly owned, but rather, licensed to you, as the user. It seems that renting music via services like Rhapsody are good for browsing and discovery new music, but buying music via iTunes affords portability and flexibility. By enabling the song to be placed on your iPod or other portable music player, you can listen to the song wherever and whenever you please. You can listen to it at the gym, in the car or even on vacation in far reaching places of the world where there is no Internet connection. This would not work with Rhapsody, as streaming media requires an Internet connection.


Movies in digital form can also be both rented or owned, however, “downloading to own” is a much newer concept. Currently there are very few forums in which users can “download to own”, and even where this is possible, the availability of titles is often limited. This is probably because studios are generally uncomfortable with the concept of “download to own” because they see it as a threat to their DVD sales and are ultimately concerned that downloads would lead to more illegal piracy. Online movie rental forums, like Netflix, are much more popular. With Netflix, users can rent movies or TV episodes by either receiving a rental DVD in the mail via rush delivery, or by streaming the media to a computer, or by streaming to a television using a Netflix ready device. In terms of movies and TV episodes, it would seem that it would be better to rent instead of own. How often have you watched a movie more than once? The only times it may be better to own instead of rent, would be to own it “just to have” and treat it more as a collector’s piece instead of for practical use.


Books in digital form, or rather “e-books”, currently cannot be owned. When users purchase an e-book, they only purchase the licence to read that book on their Amazon Kindle or Sony Reader. This means readers can no longer hawk their books at a used book store or give it to a friend once they have finished reading it. Upon browsing Amazon’s list of available e-books, it seems as though prices for these licences would not be much cheaper, compared to real books. For books that will be read only once, like novels, why would readers opt to purchase this licence if they cannot re-sell the e-book afterwards? It would seem that purchasing an e-book would only be practical if it were a textbook, cookbook, reference book, or something that will be used more than once. For books that will be read only once, perhaps it is more practical to purchase and own the real book so that it can be re-sold at a later date.

One Comment
  1. The concept of ownership versus renting/licensing is an interesting one, not only from a user-perspective but also from an IP author/owner-perspective. Adrienne’s post highlights several reasons why ownership may be preferential for users, including portability/flexibility and the potential for re-sale. At last week’s Canadian Intellectual Property Council (CIPC) forum on illicit goods, the audience had a unique opportunity to hear industry perspectives which touched on IP ownership. One panel member of the gaming and software industry pointed out that with the availability of internet gaming interfaces, customers can gain access to a purchased product without any requirements for downloading. In this manner, software developers can still provide customers with a product, but can rest assured that illegal copying or distribution will be drastically limited (since the consumer is not in physical possession of anything capable of copying or redistribution). In this context, “ownership” can take on a new meaning and incorporate the interests of IP authors and owners.

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