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Zero flix to give: EzyFlix closure shows perils of digital 'ownership'

Australians are turning towards digital content in droves, but the surprise shut down of EzyFlix has come as a timely reminder that a digital library is not worth much when the platform collapses.

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The sudden closure of video streaming service EzyFlix has left its customers holding the bag, and very little else, as users realise that 'downloading to own' doesn't equate to much when a platform goes under.

In a message posted on its website, EzyFlix informed customers that owner Access Digital Entertainment had opted to "end the service offered" on the site. But in what may have come as a surprise to some, the service also informed customers that they would lose access to all EzyFlix content they had paid for.

"If you have rented or purchased any movies or TV shows, these movies are no longer available on EzyFlix," the message on its website read.

As consumers ditch the physical and move towards almost exclusively digital catalogues of their favourite films and TV shows, the nature of content ownership is proving to be more elusive and amorphous than in the days of physical media. After Access Digital Entertainment pulled the service (and customer's content) without warning, consumer advocates are now warning that digital 'ownership' is not all it's cracked up to be.

EzyFlix offered customers a number of viewing options including timed rental of titles, video on demand, and the option to "buy via electronic sell through (download to own)". However, the site's terms stipulated that these owned titles were stored in an EzyFlix account in the cloud and needed to be played through an EzyFlix player.

"Like a number of online distributors, Ezyflix provided customers with a license to access products that could be, and has been, revoked," said Tom Godfrey, a spokesperson for the consumer advocacy group Choice.

"Now that the service has gone under, customers will realise that they never owned anything they 'purchased' from Ezyflix."

While Godfrey said consumers should always read the fine print and pay close attention to the licensing arrangements behind the scenes, he said there was still a gap between expectation and reality.

"There's a real question about whether the language around 'purchasing' or 'owning' digital products through services that can revoke access is fair. Descriptions at the point of sale don't accurately describe the products most consumers think they're getting."

While Choice raises the question of fairness, there's also the question of the Australian Consumer Law. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission warns the law is designed to stop companies from making sweeping claims that are only qualified deep within the fine print.

"Under the Australian Consumer Law, it is illegal for a business to make representations that are incorrect or likely to create a false impression," a spokesperson for the ACCC told CNET in an email. "Businesses should be prepared to substantiate any claims they make.

"While it is not uncommon to include some information in 'fine print', the technique should not be seen as a means of hiding important terms and conditions or excusing misleading claims in headlines of the body of an advertisement."

EzyFlix has not been alone in bundling its content with conditions. Local rival Quickflix also offers "Premium Streaming" that it bills as a way to "own" an episode or season of a particular TV show. However, in its terms and conditions, Quickflix says content is only offered through a "sublicense" and "Streaming Titles to Own Service requires the ongoing provision of streaming services by Quickflix and a license from the relevant content provider."

In a phone call with CNET, Quickflix CEO Stephen Langsford said the company had not received any complaints from customers about these conditions on content. He noted that Premium Streaming was just one part of the Quickflix business and offered similar terms to other providers such as Apple.

EzyFlix is also not the only smaller service to close off access to content when it shuttered. In late 2014, Telstra-owned music streaming service BigPond Music gave customers a month to download their music from the platform before it shut up shop and the streaming tap was closed off permanently.

Larger companies such as Google offer customers the right to view content purchased from the Play store, but only "for as long as Google and the applicable copyright holder have rights to provide you that Product." Apple has similar licensing terms, and both services include limits on the number of devices that can access purchased content.

But behemoths like Google and Apple are unlikely to go under any time soon, leaving their customers without their favourite shows. Customers of smaller services may not be so lucky.

Ezyflix did not respond to request for comment.