Renting iTunes Movies and the Value of Ownership

iTunes Movie Rental Message

Back in September Apple made a welcome improvement to iTunes by automatically upgrading, at no cost, its customers’ already-purchased movies to 4K resolution. This was laudably customer-friendly but I also found it to be a savvy move in that it underscores the value of owning media.

It’s notable that movies and TV shows haven’t followed the path of music, at least not yet. Video media was never as thoroughly decimated by digital piracy as audio was, and so as a result we don’t have a “Spotify for movies,” a comprehensive (or nearly so) streaming catalog available for cheap. The closest we have is Netflix which has never been complete and, over time, continues to become even less so.

You can argue whether that’s ultimately good or bad for consumers (who wouldn’t want a Spotify for movies?) but at a minimum, the ownership of films allowed under the current model preserves a meaningfulness that has largely disappeared from music. I rarely buy albums anymore because I can listen to nearly anything I want at any time I want on Spotify. That’s a tremendous luxury but the flip side is that I don’t care about music nearly as much anymore, and I don’t really feel like any of it is “mine.”

By contrast, I do feel a certain pride of ownership over the movies in my collection, whether they’re digital or on physical media. These are movies that I’ve selected to be part of my own personal archive, that I plan to return to again and again. In this way I have a kind of relationship with them; they’re much more a reflection of who I am and what interests me than the albums I’ve assembled in Spotify.

To that point, it occurs to me that Apple could go even further in emphasizing the value of ownership by helping their customers convert rentals to purchases. If you rent a movie on iTunes, Apple should offer to let you pay the difference between the rental price and the purchase price to actually own it. To keep this reasonable, this offer could be limited to the rental period, which Apple also increased to forty-eight hours back in September. That’s the perfect amount of time to let a customer upgrade her transaction because it creates a useful urgency to the value. I posted this on Twitter over the weekend and was surprised by how many people seemed to think it was a good idea.

Like the 4K upgrade, this would go a long way towards removing a key piece of friction in the ownership model. With analog media, there was no practical way of allowing a customer to get credit for a previous transaction involving a specific piece of media. Whether you saw a movie in theaters or rented it from Blockbuster it didn’t matter because when you decided you wanted to own it for yourself, you were back at square one—you’d pay exactly as much as someone who’d never seen it before. In digital media, especially with end-to-end buying and playback systems like iTunes, this is now relatively trivial. Giving credit for previous transactions would go a long way towards cementing the relationship between the creators of media and the consumers of media, and in the case of this suggestion I can only imagine that it would spur more purchases and generate more revenue.