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Entertainment: Is it a rent-to-(never)-own market?

The media industry is casting about for a winning business model, with streaming, or rental, models seeming to work alongside buy models like Apple's iTunes. What's most important?

Even as the decline in DVD sales--both in the U.S. and abroad--has accelerated since 2006, DVD rentals through services such as Netflix (adding 25 percent more customers since 2008) and Redbox (adding 500 machines per month) have been booming.

The reason, as The Economist surmises, may be a shifting view on how consumers prefer to consume entertainment:

The real worry (for the movie industry), then, is not that people are abandoning DVDs but that they are abandoning the notion of owning them.

This is perhaps exacerbated by an industry that can't seem to make up its mind by what it means by ownership, as Ogilvy Group U.K.'s Rory Sutherland writes in The Spectator:

(The) piracy debate is far from one-sided. The very same record industry which today bleats on about intellectual property seemed conveniently blind to the concept back in the early 1990s when they charged us 19 pounds (about $31) for every CD they reissued--even when we already owned the very same album on vinyl....

The BBC often commits the same offense. Why should I pay full price for a DVD boxed set of "The Office" when I have already paid for the series through my license fee? Either the value lies in the physical packaging or in the content itself. Publishers try to charge for both; to have their cake and sell it. This is questionable.

Indeed, it is. Whether we're moving to a rental market or finding new ways to apply ownership to digital goods through digital rights management (DRM) and other means, those industries that sell digital content (movies, books, news, software, music, etc.) need to get their story straight. Is the value in the content, or is it in the packaging?

For Apple, it's both. Apple has long insisted that consumers prefer to own rather than rent, and it has sold more than 6 billion songs through its iTunes Store to prove it. But arguably, the value in Apple is in its distribution service (iTunes), more than the bits and bytes of the songs themselves. I can download Bob Marley for free, but I elect to buy through iTunes for a fee. The service justifies the price.

In software, it's increasingly packaging and ancillary services that drive purchasing because the "content" (i.e,. the software) is a free download. That packaging, like Apple's iTunes, is worthless without the content, but together, they're a good deal.

Is this the future?

Trent Reznor seems to think so. You?

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.