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Apple responds to viral tweet over disappearing iTunes movies

Apple over the weekend responded to a viral tweet claiming it had removed purchased movies from a user's iTunes account with their consent, allegations that kicked spurred a flood of commentary regarding digital media rights.

The tweet in question outlined a fairly simple-sounding scenario in which a user said three movies he had purchased in iTunes had been removed from his account, meaning he was unable to play or re-download them. Apple support acknowledged that the movies were gone and attempted to rectify the issue by providing rental credits, far off the value of the missing films.

The problem, and initial response from Apple, prompted speculation that Apple has the power to delete purchased media at will, but an investigation by CNET suggests there is more to the story.

For starters, the user in question had recently relocated from Australia to Canada, changing their active region in the iTunes Store. Some movies are not available in different regions, and if they are, they can be different versions of the film. For instance, production houses might change political or regional references, remove aspects of a film to satisfy ratings boards in more conservative countries, or change the name of a movie to something more relevant for a specific audience.

That seems to have been the issue in this particular situation.

In a statement provided to CNET, an Apple spokesperson said, "Any movies you've already downloaded can be enjoyed at any time and will not be deleted unless you've chosen to do so. If you change your country setting, some movies may not be available to re-download from the movie store if the version you purchased isn't also available in the new country. If needed, you can change your country setting back to your prior country to re-download those movies."

The statement suggests neither Apple nor the studio pulled these specific films. Instead, the titles likely have Canada-specific versions that are different than those offered in Australian. Anders is also seemingly unable to switch back to the Australian iTunes Store as it requires a local Paypal or billing address, which he no longer has. There are apparently workarounds here, but it seems unnecessarily difficult to pull off.

The crux of the matter is physical ownership versus digital ownership. To date, Apple has not revoked access to a film that someone has purchased (outside of these fringe scenarios). For those who want to play it safe, best practices would imply downloading and creating a physical copy of the movie. Store these on a hard drive, and should ever the day come that Apple or a studio ever remove access, you still have them available.

In this case, it appears Apple Support has now pledged a workaround to allow Anders to once more have access to his movies. He also has been a good sport about it, noting he "fell into a licensing crack, it seems."