Digital “Ownership”

According to a study conducted by Virtua, 77% of Americans would prefer to own digital items rather than stream them. Between video streaming services, news publication subscriptions, audiobook subscriptions, and eBook subscriptions, Americans are exhausted by recurring fees without retention of a digital item. With the purchase of a physical book, consumers maintain the book until it is damaged or lost. Ownership of the physical book copy belongs to the purchaser of the book. This is not the case for the purchase of digital media. 

Individual Readers

This issue of ownership is further exacerbated by the possibility of eBooks disappearing from a person’s device if a company wishes. In 2009, Amazon infamously remotely removed copies of George Orwell’s 1984 from purchasers’ devices. This quiet remote removal perfectly exemplifies this issue of ownership. While the issue was remedied and the books returned, the possibility of remotely removing digital media still exists, meaning that purchasers may lose access to a book they paid for. 

If a platform is discontinued or a business goes under, the eBooks supported by the platform will become inaccessible. Unlike a physical book, access to an eBook is dependent on the platform that supports it. Currently, no procedures are in place to preserve the ability to access the book. If the platform disappears, so do the eBooks supported by that platform. In 2019, Microsoft shut down its eBook store, causing all eBooks purchased through its platform to be inaccessible. The retention of an eBook is contingent on the platform remaining intact. 

The possibility of removal or disappearance of a purchased eBook reveals that the purchaser does not truly own a copy of the book. The purchase of an eBook is a license to read it, not true ownership. Additionally, purchasers are unable to allow others to borrow their eBook or to resell it as they could with a physical book copy.

“Digital retailers insist that ownership depends on the terms of an end user license agreement (‘EULA’)—that incomprehensible slew of legalese you reflexively click ‘I agree’ to dismiss. Those terms—negotiated by lawyers working for retailers and publishers—determine your rights, not the default entitlements of personal property. And buried within those thousands of words that we all ignore is one consistent message: you don’t own the books you bought; you merely license them. That is to say, you have permission to read them. Until one day, you don’t.”

The End of Ownership


Libraries experience problems with digital ownership as well. Libraries cannot retain unlimited access to disperse digital media because it would be financially harmful to the publisher. From the library’s perspective, Libraries must repurchase eBooks after a certain amount of borrows. Libraries are bound to expensive subscriptions to eBooks that must be renewed. Therefore, libraries do not truly own the material they are purchasing. 

Over the past few months, lawsuits in several states pertaining to libraries’ purchase and retention of eBooks have arisen. Multiple states are attempting to create legislation requiring publishers to sell eBooks to libraries at a “reasonable” price. Maryland passed legislation requiring this but was overruled in higher court due to copyright issues and constitutional boundaries. To quote the Opinion of the court, “Striking the balance between the critical functions of libraries and the importance of preserving the exclusive rights of copyright holders… is squarely in the province of Congress and not this Court or a state legislature.” 

Legislation passed by states on this issue has proven unsuccessful thus far. This allows publishers to ensure that digital books are only borrowed or accessible through subscription, not owned. Libraries are left with soaring eBook subscription prices that must be paid over and over again, instilling fear that they may be unable to access the desired media due to cost. 

Subscription Model

While many areas of digital media are shifting towards the subscription model, eBooks may be shifting away from it. Recurring fees and the possibility of losing a purchased digital book are concerning to consumers. Individual readers and libraries alike are concerned about the lack of ownership. If you must repurchase your book, do you really own it? 

As a publisher, digital ownership must be approached from both a financial and ethical perspective. In a world moving steadily more digital, the thought of not truly owning any purchased digital material is concerning. Americans’ attitudes about digital media are changing, and publishers should adapt their methods to align with consumers. Publishers should consider how to best accommodate the needs and wants of consumers in a way that preserves financial growth. 

The Substack Doctors

Covid-19 brought an interesting issue to the surface. What happens when social media sites decide to censor information that they deem false? During the Covid-19 pandemic, many doctors were censored for opposing things such as lockdowns, vaccinations, and mandates. Doctors expressing unpopular opinions or differing data findings were promptly flagged, suspended, or banned. Because of this, many of the censored doctors fled to Substack to continue writing. 

What exactly is Substack?

Hamish McKenzieChris Best, and Jairaj Sethi created Substack in 2017. It is essentially a blog and email newsletter platform. Writers can decide whether to make their content accessible for free or with a paid subscription. Consumers are often able to access some of the content online for free, in blog format. Subscribers receive the content in their email inboxes. Writers that choose to utilize the subscription format pay a 10% fee to Substack. 

Misinformation Station?

Substack received an influx of users and a place in the spotlight in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic. Social media sites like Twitter censored many users for propagating “misinformation.” Some of the censored users were simply online personalities such as Joe Rogan, who is well known for his conspiracy theories and polarizing opinions. However, some of the censored users were doctors. Dr. Peter McCulloughDr. Joseph MercolaDr. Robert Malone, and Dr. Rashid Buttar are just a few of the censored doctors. 

For their remarks regarding the Covid-19 virus and frequently the MRNA vaccinations in particular, these censored physicians as well as numerous others faced harsh criticism. Much of their content is very controversial, hence becoming banned from social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook.

After becoming banned from social media platforms, many of these controversial doctors fled to Substack. Substack allowed them to continue expressing their findings and opinions freely. In turn, Substack received intense backlash for harboring doctors perceived by many as misleading frauds. 

Substack responded in an article written by founders Hamish McKenzieChris Best, and Jairaj Sethi titled “Society has a trust problem. More censorship will only make it worse.” The title of the article perfectly encapsulates the sentiments of the founders. They quote in the article, “we will always view censorship as a last resort because we believe open discourse is better for writers and better for society.” 

Rise of Subscriptions?

Those fleeing from social media censorship and Substack have formed a sort of symbiotic relationship. Many of the censored doctors are noted to have tens of thousands of Substack subscribers. Substack’s subscription model has proven very successful. Doctors choosing to write articles expressing opinions that are not politically accepted have grown a dedicated subscriber base. Many consumers appear interested in investigating the suppressed information.

The doctors voicing contentious Covid-19 results and opinions do not only attract a sizable subscriber base; they also represent one of Substack’s major revenue streams. According to the Center for Countering Digital Hate, Anti-vax content has supposedly brought in $2.5 million. While Substack takes their 10% cut, 90% of the revenue goes to the writer themselves.

Many social media sites are currently undergoing controversy due to their censorship, including that of the doctors. After Elon Musk purchased Twitter, he has been releasing information pertaining to the previous owners of Twitter’s suppression of information and collusion with the federal government. 

With many content producers such as doctors and now many consumers fleeing social media and flocking to Substack, does this indicate a rise of the subscription model? Social media has driven away many doctors rejecting censorship. However, as a consumer, utilizing Substack and subscribing to many different doctors is both tedious and impractical. Before the rise of social media, a subscription to a publication would allow access to the work of multiple different writers. Social media allows you to follow many different accounts without cost and to easily access them in the home feed. To keep up with these methods, Substack must become more practical.

A new tactic has already begun popping up. Some doctors are creating joint Substack accounts. Subscription to one Substack includes access to articles from multiple different writers. For example, Dr. Peter McCullough and John Leake have created a joint Substack called “Courageous Discourse.” The subscription includes articles from both writers pertaining to civil liberties and clinical science. This approach to Substack will likely grow in popularity, and as a consumer, it is certainly more convenient. 

Despite the controversy, Substack is only rising in popularity. Doctors are finding new ways to share information and utilize Substack’s subscription model. Substack’s rejection of censorship will continue to set it apart from other media platforms unless others begin to follow suit. Substack has created a reputation as a haven for free speech, for better or for worse.