This is a weird one. But it’s a legitimate quandary, and I’m not sure I can resolve it my own, hence why I’m tapping it out on a public platform. It won’t be as controversial as renaming CHAZ to C.H.U.D., but it’s a question rooted in a changing world.
As online retailers — or any retailers — have the right to do when people raise enough ruckus to signal their virtue, online platforms have the right to decide what they want to stream. After all, it’s on their servers and their service, they should have the right to decide what to sell.
I’m presuming there’s some level of agreement with that statement. After all, a Catholic bookstore shouldn’t be obligated to carry a copy of the Communist Manifesto or The DaVinci Code. At least, I think that’s common sense.
There are also occasional pushes for retailers to stop carrying items that have fallen out of favor. Amazon stopped selling the Confederate battle flag, as did other retailers, and everyone agreed that was okay for them to do. I don’t own one, and I never planned on purchasing one.
Sure, Amazon still sells the Bonnie Blue flag, but people would have to know history to know much about that one. Probably a safe bet no one will raise a stink until they do.
By way of my convoluted thinking, I thought about people who have purchased digital copies of movies. I know I own a fair amount.
When you find a deal for $4.99, you tend to jump to it. Since I’m not a huge fan of owning too many physical copies of anything despite a current taste for expanding my collection again, digital copies are a wonderment.
I can watch a movie I like whenever I want, without having to take up space on a shelf. I also get to watch it without generating more Future Garbage for the dump when I die.
(Speaking from my own experiences, almost all of your stuff is going to get thrown out when you die. You’re just kicking the can down the road to someone else who will decide to throw it away. The most cherished items will be retained, but largely you’re just holding onto literal Future Garbage right now.)
I’m not trying to be a downer. I’m just trying to have a practical talk with you.
The Mechanics of It
So here we get to where I’m going with this.
A person who’s purchased a digital copy from a company merely has paid a fee for lifetime access to their copy. They can watch it whenever they like. But they don’t own a physical thing, What they’ve paid for is a digital license.
Since online retailers and streaming services are, as most agree, free to decide what to host on their services, where do they stand when people stand have a digital license to a film later found to be odious by a loud plurality of people. (Note: I’m still going to use the term “own(s) a digital copy” just because it’s the commonly accepted term.)
If the company decides they no longer wish to carry something deemed offensive, they have the right to stop offering it for sale. Again, no retailer is required to carry something.
In the case of digital copies, I’m wondering if that extends to their right to rescind access for the purchaser.
Short Circuit has not aged particularly well, given one of its character portrayals is a white actor in brownface. Short Circuit 2, costarring Michael McKean, hasn’t aged well for the exact same reason.
It’s entirely conceivable that at some point in the future, a retailer would decide to stop selling it. It’s conceivable that the production company would stop producing copies of it altogether.
We would all agree the retailer has the right to do that. We would all agree that the production company has the right to do that. No matter what someone’s emotional attachment is to a work, no one is obliged to sell it.
What if, though, someone has a copy of Short Circuit or Short Circuit 2 in their digital collection? If the film is now judged too controversial to sell, I think it’s conceivable that there would be pressure for it not to be streamed, or even sold in the digital format at all. After all, if a retailer isn’t obligated to sell it, they’re also not obligated to host it on their servers.
While it’s hard to envision anyone being too upset about Short Circuit evaporating into the digital mists, where does that leave Orson Welles’ Othello? What if someone owns a digital copy of Triumph of the Will, the monumental propaganda piece directed by Leni Riefenstahl for the National Socialist German Workers’ Party party?
It is unquestionably odious. It’s literally lauding men who are some of the greatest monsters of the 20th Century.
But it is important. The construction of Triumph of the Will influenced students who studied it in film school. It’s influenced documentaries and fictional film with its innovative use of camera and shot selections. It was directed by a woman at a time when female directors weren’t common.
It’s conceivable someone would own a copy just for the sake of being an amateur film historian. They may want to show it to people to show the dangers of popular movements and fiery ideologies.
It might be something they own because they understand its place in film history is as important as The Birth of a Nation, an equally-consequential work that is equally reprehensible in its content. Forrest Gump even uses a digitally-altered clip of it in acknowledgement.
And so I’m left curious.
Obviously, if Amazon Prime’s leadership decides it no longer wishes to stream Breakfast at Tiffany’s, they can stop. My question is simply where the line is.
After all, if the point is to halt the advancement of things/portrayals/ideas that are distasteful in the extreme, it’s arguably imperative to remove access to all copies. Someone could easily argue that so long as no one is barging into someone’s house and taking someone’s physical copy, they’re simply rescinding a digital access license as is their right; or again, in some cases, their “duty.”
Further, it extends to all sorts of digital “ownership,” including the “right” to rescind or edit books without the user’s express consent. For that matter, there’s some music that was purposely made to be controversial; as the taste for tolerating controversy has lessened, so too might digital copies of that music be altered with the same reasoning.
To be clear, I’m not taking a position. I’m merely framing the argument I could see.
They could issue a refund as a goodwill gesture. They could give the customer a credit to replace it with a different movie or two.
This one got heavy and I’m not sure how it resolves now or in the future. Fortunately, I have one all set for tomorrow that isn’t such a bummer.