Note-taking app Notability announced that they would be switching from a one-time paid app to a freemium model on Nov. 1, with the current $9.99 one-time fee being bumped up to a $14.99 yearly subscription. Users who do not want to pay for the subscription will be able to use the app for free, but with limited note editing and a reduced feature set.
Controversially, Notability stated in its subscription terms that when the new model takes effect, users who previously bought the app will lose full functionality unless they pay for the subscription. Following customer backlash, discounts from rival apps and the revelation that this policy violated Apple’s App Store guidelines, Notability updated its terms to allow users who previously bought the app to continue having access to the existing features that they paid for.
While Notability’s cycle of controversy may be over, the backlash that they received is emblematic of a larger frustration with the takeover of the software as a service (SaaS) model and subscription content. Specifically, the rise in SaaS and streaming services over the perpetual licenses and ownership of media of the past has created a digital “ownerless society,” where users get to consume software or media at much cheaper prices, but will have no control over said software and media. Photoshop, for example, introduced a subscription model in 2012 which users followed. But what if they decide to raise the price or release an update that users hate? With the SaaS model, users would still be locked in to paying for their software. Previously, users who purchased a software license would be able to keep the application they bought without having to worry about issues like these. The SaaS model thus gives more power to companies while users now only have access to a product, rather than getting to own it.
The rise of the SaaS model in key sectors such as digital media has been a huge contributor to the ownerless society we see today. Before, when the predominant form of music consumption was through purchases such as CDs and MP3 files, listeners were able to own a copy of the media they paid for. Part of this ownership meant the listener could have a perpetual right to listen to their music and transport their library of songs anywhere, two key features that are not available to users who subscribe to listen to music. With the current usage of streaming services, listeners can access music, but cannot own it. In everyday circumstances, these omissions are probably not something that users worry about. However, there are enough situations that exemplify why being in an ownerless society has its drawbacks.
Take music disputes for example. In March 2021, Spotify and Kakao Entertainment, a major K-pop label and distributor, failed to renew a license agreement which resulted in thousands of songs from many K-pop artists being removed entirely from Spotify. Eventually a new agreement was signed, but hundreds of millions of K-pop listeners were left without their favorite artists for over a week, and many feared that this separation would be permanent. Individual artists can also withhold their music from streaming services for any reason, as was the case for Taylor Swift’s and Jay-Z’s entire discographies and Kanye West’s “The Life of Pablo” from Spotify. In the case that fed-up users want to switch platforms, they do not have a right to easily transfer their library of music, unlike the MP3 listeners of the past. None of these problems would have affected music listeners if they had bought copies of their favorite albums; however, the inexpensive cost of a streaming subscription and the convenience of having an on-demand library are huge benefits that have drawn hundreds of millions of users, so the ownerless society and its drawbacks are just something we all have to deal with.
Of course, people don’t need to own everything they consume. In today’s world, subscriptions and rentals are often the only options that make sense. Take a textbook rental for the quarter, for example, or streaming services which allow convenient access to vast libraries of media for a low price. Consumers should be able to make their own decisions between subscriptions or one-time purchases; however, as a society, we need to make sure that the ownerless society we are heading into is something we truly want. Are we comfortable with being locked into a streaming platform’s billing cycle if we can’t guarantee that the show we like will still be available tomorrow? As we trade the ability to own our content for the permission to access it for cheaper, we are placing more power in the hands of big industries, like record labels and tech companies, to make decisions for us.
Johnny Nguyen is an Opinion Intern for the 2021 fall quarter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.