Spoiler Alert: Unavailable Titles on Streaming Services Leave Consumers Wanting Redress 

OLIVIA ZUKOWSKI—Consumers using streaming platforms like Amazon Prime Video and Vudu are receiving an unwanted spoiler alert about certain movies and shows they have purchased. To consumers’ surprise, although purchasing digital media may be easy, these titles may not be available in their video libraries indefinitely.  

With a simple click, individuals can acquire a whole season of their favorite show through online streaming services. Instead of owning physical box sets of DVDs, consumers tend to assume these digital purchases are essentially an online equivalent of more traditional physical copies. However, a Twitter user was shocked when he noticed that Amazon Prime Video removed two purchased seasons of an Adult Swim cartoon, Final Space, from his video library. In comparison to a platform like Netflix, where shows are cyclically added and removed, a digital purchase seemed to signal longevity and permanence to consumers. At least this is what Amanda Caudel argued when she sued Amazon for unfair competition and false advertising.  

In a similar situation with “disappearing” media, Caudel filed a putative class action lawsuit on behalf of herself and any California residents who purchased video content from Amazon from April 25, 2016. She claimed that Amazon’s Prime Video service “misleads consumers” because purchased video content could become later unavailable if a third-party decided to remove it. Major studios like Warner Brothers and Disney could revoke their content from Prime based on strategic decisions. For example, Warner Brothers Discovery decided to remove content as part of a planned set of tax write-offs in its merger.  

So how do streaming services justify the disappearance of media? In the case of Amazon Prime, rationale stems from the assertion that consumers never own the media to begin with. Terms of service for FandangoNow/Vudu and Amazon Prime Video include terms explaining that ordering and viewing content and paying applicable fees only grants users “non-exclusive, non-transferable, non-commercial, and limited license access” to use and/or view the content purchased. The key in these terms is that this media is only provided to users through a limited license access, meaning that if a license with a third party terminates, changes, or expires, consumers may be left with an empty video library.  

Amazon countered Caudel’s lawsuit with a motion to dismiss, alleging that Caudel was not injured by Amazon. In her case, all titles continued to be available on Amazon Prime Video. However, the crux of Amazon’s argument was rooted in the user agreements, which highlighted the potential for revocation of media purchased. Essentially, consumers need not read or understand these agreements to be bound by them. If a consumer has reasonable notice of these terms, they have no case against platforms that have removed media.  

The premise that you can buy something, but not own it, is not limited to digital copies of movies and shows. Buying licenses to technology and not an object itself are very common with software, especially those that run phones, computers, and cars. However, this can even extend to physical items such as the cartridge of a SodaStream sparkling water maker. The Cylinders of the SodaStream model remain the  
“sole and exclusive property of SodaStream.” Justifications range from safety concerns to making a profit. While some restrictive licensing models have been successfully contested in the Supreme Court, software and more relaxed online forms are typically upheld.  

Where an excess of legal redress may not exist for consumers, taking time to read and understand terms of service is important. Furthermore, consumers can influence streaming platforms to take steps to create terms and conditions that are clear and intelligible. Terms should also be accessible to all individuals with formats that can be saved, printed, or referred to later.  

While terms and conditions may provide a safeguard for streaming platforms from class action lawsuits, there is increased awareness that all may not be as it seems when it comes to licensing agreements, and that consumers may even move towards traditional physical media if they continue to face video libraries that do not reflect their purchases.