‘Tis the season: Disney revokes access to purchased Christmas movies to force you back to cable this Christmas (updated)

You're a foul one...

Sometimes movie executives make decisions so obviously bone-headed, it leaves one wondering if these people consult actual humans before making product decisions. In this case, Disney has decided to yank certain movies off the shelf right in time for Christmas. If the House of Mouse was simply opting not to sell movies digitally, that would be one thing. What it’s actually doing is yanking those films out of your purchased library. Yes, if you’ve bought a Disney movie on Amazon Video, you may log in today and find it missing from your library. You didn’t think that you actually owned the digital videos that you bought, did you?

So, if you were hoping to watch Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Lady and the Tramp, or some of Disney’s various TV shows, too bad. Looking over the company’s Amazon catalog, it looks as though the company yanked movies that rank high on the nostalgia ladder, possibly aiming for the films families are most likely to watch this holiday season. Some of the films are based around Christmas, but others, like The Lion King, don’t have a clear link to the holiday.

The Circle of No

Original image by Tsao Shin.

According to BoingBoing, Disney pulled the titles in order to guarantee “exclusivity on their own channel.” So far, some of the title choices are a bit odd — Peter Pan HD has been pulled, but Mulan, Lilo & Stitch, and Tangled are all available to rent. You can’t watch Beauty and the Beast, but The Little Mermaid is available. Lady and the Tramp is out, but Cinderella is online. Clearly, Disney didn’t want to pull its entire library of top-drawer work, but that’s small comfort to people who thought they’d paid Amazon for a consistent service.

The myth of ownership

What this type of action demonstrates is how streaming and physical ownership really aren’t equivalent in the modern world. Disney hasn’t yanked its physical movies out of Amazon, probably because it makes more money per disc than it does per stream. If you bought a copy of Beauty and the Beast last year, you can drop it into your DVD or Blu-ray player, no problem — nothing Disney has done can prevent you from watching it.

But Amazon signed an agreement with Disney saying that Disney had the right to withdraw its catalog any time it wanted, for any reason — and the customer just has to deal with it. The problem is, when Amazon and Disney change their relationship or availability schedule, the ordinary user is the one who gets shafted. We’ve seen this problem play out in other contexts: when CBS and Time Warner got into a fight earlier this year, consumers didn’t get to watch channels they were paying TWC to provide.

The idea that consumers are only licensing, not purchasing content is a fundamental tenet of copyright law. The problem is, owning a legal copy of a product has always granted the buyer the right to watch that content in a non-public performance. Buying the movie on Amazon Video or an alternative service instead of a physical disc might save a few bucks, but there’s an associated cost — you have given up your right to watch the content in a time and manner of your choosing. Disney will not sell you a perpetual digital copy, and Amazon’s hands are tied.

This kind of problem could undercut Amazon’s own efforts to create future streaming-based products. Every time Amazon has to perform this kind of action — as it did when it uninstalled legitimately purchased copies of Orwell’s 1984 from Kindles without alerting users — it damages the idea that streaming products are equivalent to physical copies.

Now read: Why I pirate

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