The Chronicle

of a ColdFusion Expatriate

Own Your Everything

November 9, 2023

As astute readers are aware, I’ve been on a host my own stuff kick for some time now. I brought my music local with Navidrome, I moved my remaining websites off of that-shape-named-service into static sites that I host myself, and I just moved from Samsung SmartThings to Home Assistant for all my home automation stuff.

A recent household budget discussion wandered into the territory of replacing our Spotify family plan, and my wife’s position on it revealed what I think is one of the crucial points about hosting your own systems: owning your stuff.

• • •

About a year ago, I got a year of free YouTube Premium through a promotion, and that is about to end. YouTube Premium costs more than I want to pay, so we were discussing what to do about it.

“YouTube Premium also includes YouTube Music,” I pointed out, “so if we switched from Spotify, it could be about the same price.”

She replied, “I can’t leave Spotify, I would lose all my playlists.”

I would lose all my playlists.

Oh, my sweet summer child. Those playlists aren’t yours. All of those playlists that you spent hours, months, years compiling; the specific collections of tracks that are perfect for your workout, your rush hour commute, your writing session… They belong to Spotify.

• • •

A traditionalist interpretation of property law in the United States, which I’ll use here mainly for its simplicity, holds that ownership comprises three rights: exclusion, use, and transfer. When you possess something, you have the right to use it (you can ride your bike), the right to exclude others from its use (you can prevent others from riding it), and the right to transfer it (you can give your bike away, or sell it).

Spotify, of course, is a subscription service. In a very broad manner of speaking, everything you do within Spotify is on loan to you for the duration of your subscription. If Spotify decides one day that you violated their terms of service, they can just cut you off, and you lose access to everything in your account.

This starts to feel gross when you are dumping hours, days, months, or years into creating things that you don’t actually own. There are real, practical risks to doing that work. In the most extreme example, the service could simply go away and you could lose it all. But even if that is only a remote possibility, the service could also restructure how features work or change what you are allowed to do with your creations.

If I spend hours or days compiling playlists on my Navidrome server, those playlists are mine. I can download them as text files, edit them, give them to other people, etc. Because the playlists live on my own server, I retain those three core property rights: exclusion, use, and transfer.

• • •

It’s never as easy as that, though, is it? Creating playlists on my local music server is swell, except that I can’t share them with anyone (unless I give them access to my local music server). Even someone motivated to listen to a playlist I have created there may not be motivated enough to figure out how to use Navidrome. Is it even legal for me to let people listen to music I’ve purchased?

We are living in a liminal technological space where many things are as connected as they’ve ever been in history, but at the same time, quite isolated. We have the ability to instantly share things with anyone in the world… Unless those things live inside of a subscriber’s walled garden and the other person doesn’t want to come through the gate.

Notoriously ambiguous American copyright law muddies the water even further. If I let you borrow a CD that I own, nobody would blink an eye. But who listens to CDs anymore? If I want to let you listen to an album I bought on Bandcamp, and I give you a copy of the mp3 files, I’m pretty sure that’s actually illegal.

If, instead of giving you a copy, I give you access to my Navidrome server so that you can stream the album from me… Is that okay? I believe that the official legal answer here is “it depends,” so be prepared to have that figured out in court.

• • •

It still irks me deeply that we should all be investing great effort to create things that we ultimately have no control over. The service owners love this, because it creates more friction around leaving the service. So-called “stickiness” or “customer loyalty” are euphemisms for transforming convenience into sunk cost fallacies.

Certainly it is even more work to reproduce a beloved Spotify playlist by hunting down each and every album or track through some retailer, purchasing it, and compiling the playlist through your own local music system. In fact, that alone might be too much work for virtually anyone to undertake. I have many playlists in Spotify that I haven’t attempted to “liberate.”

Our corporate overlords would be elated for us to simply rent everything we want in life and to be subject to their perpetually transforming terms of service. My nudge here is just to ask: is it actually worth it? What is the cost of the convenience?