A federal judge has rejected an Apple motion to dismiss an alleged class action lawsuit over the company’s use of the “buy” and “rent” labels in the sale of digital content. As first covered by The Hollywood Reporter, the suit can now proceed, although it can still be settled before the trial is ever reached.
The lead prosecutor in the case, David Andino, argues that Apple is misleading consumers by telling them that it can ‘buy’ digital versions of albums, TV shows and movies from its stores. Why? Because the iPhone maker retains the power to terminate customers’ access to this content whenever he wants. This can happen, for example, when the company loses distribution rights to content that users have not protected by downloading to their device.
“Just as Best Buy cannot enter a person’s home to take back the movie DVD such person has purchased from it, the defendant must not be able to remove digital content from its customers or have it removed by others”, Andino’s says lawsuit. “While some consumers are lucky and never lose access to their paid media, some day others will find that their digital content is now gone forever.”
Apple tried to dismiss the case, but a ruling this week by Judge John Mendez of the US court shows that the company’s arguments were not entirely convincing.
“Apple claims that”[n]o reasonable consumer would believe ‘that purchased content would remain on the iTunes platform indefinitely,’ Mendez wrote in a to order filed with the Eastern District of California. But in general, the term ‘buy’ means owning something. It seems plausible, at least in the motion for rejection, that reasonable consumers would expect that their access cannot be revoked. “
To emphasize his point, Mendez pointed to the definition of the word “buy” in the Mirriam-Webster dictionary (meaning “to acquire possession, property, or rights to use or services by payment, especially with money”) – a timeless move that is apparently as welcome in federal court proceedings as it is in hastily written marriage speeches.
Apple tried to argue that Andino’s “injury” was purely speculative, as he has not lost access to any content. However, as Mendez summarizes, the harm being done is not the threat of losing future access, but the deception that comes with Apple’s use of the word “buy”. This misleads consumers as to the exact nature of the property, meaning that Andino has “either paid too much for the product or spent money that he would not have had without the misrepresentation.”
Apple had some success, however, and one element of the lawsuit was dismissed: Andino’s allegations of “unjust enrichment,” which would affect how potential damages would be calculated. However, Mendez left open the possibility of future “preliminary relief” – that is, material changes to the way Apple sells content in the future. However, all these questions will have to be resolved in future proceedings.