Some thoughts on ownership

When we talk about commerce, we talk about selling and buying things, right? Well, in most cases, this is true, but is this really what this is all about? My recent, long-overdue trip to the local library triggered some thoughts I’ve been wanting to share for a while now. And sharing is indeed what is the bottom line is here.

When was the last time you bought a book? And what happened with this book after you’ve read it? Passed it on to a family member or a friend to have a read? And after that? It most probably sits somewhere on your bookshelf, taking up space but at least making you look well-read. (And by the way, this principle applies to ebooks as well, apart from the ability to share and without the ability to brag about your literacy because the file sits quietly on your tablet or other reading device.)

ReCommerce and Libraries

If you would like to free up the space in your shelf and get back some of the cash you’ve invested when purchasing the book in the first place, there are a couple of possibilities. You might want to use eBay or Amazon and try selling it there. There is a growing number of so-called recommerce sites that also allow you to get rid of your stuff. The downside: It’s a hassle to put your item for sale and to carry it to the next post-office, and you certainly lose money in the process. The truth is that especially fiction paperbacks sell for just 1 Cent on Amazon if they’ve waited a bit too long in your house.

In case you didn’t follow your impulse (ie. firing up Amazon and buying the book online) you probably used your local library to grab your copy. You paid a minuscule fee, enjoyed the book for a couple of weeks and brought it back and were done with it. Downside: Using libraries, in general, is not as user-friendly as your favourite online store, in most cases they don’t carry very recent publications and visiting a library in person makes you look, well, at least slightly nerdy.

The sharing model

The case outlined above are symptoms of the same cause: in general, what consumers really want to do with their money is to buy the right to enjoy a product (or a service) for a limited time period. Or, to put it differently, the focus is on usage and not on ownership. Let’s have a look at another example to see the difference even better. When you’re getting a child, you typically need a lot of stuff, especially toys and books and all kinds of vehicles. This baby stuff is used for a while, and as the child grows up, new things become necessary. Fortunately, moms of all times have been and still are quite inventive when it comes to sharing baby stuff between each other, and from personal experience I can say that there is an sheer endless flow of bits and pieces in and out of our household. Other things, such as diapers and baby-food – nobrainer! – are consumed in the literal sense of the word: After a baby has eaten its mash, it’s gone. Period.

Let’s get back to the book example. Without wanting to sound too Al Gore-y – this planet’s resources are limited and if you are talking about responsibility and sustainability, millions of copies of the same manuscript carrying the same information simply do not make sense in the long run. You might argue that pushing out all those book clones makes for an extraordinary backup archive. But you can also see it as a giant waste of energy and paper.


The crucial factor in all those sharing efforts is logistics. Here, the digital age can really show its strengths. As the examples of streaming services such as Netflix and Spotify show, the idea of using services (rather than buying and downloading stuff) to listen to music and watch films and series is a valid business model. Pay a certain monthly fee and you buy the right to enjoy all types of media. As long as you’re connected to the web, there is no need to store anything on the device you are using. As overused as this term is – but this is the cloud showcase.

For physical goods, this can be trickier. Think about sharing of power-tools: Even if it makes sense to borrow a chain-saw rather than purchasing one when all you have to do is cut down this one annoying tree in your garden, nobody would seriously consider sticking something like this in the mail and send it through the country, right? Or would they?

The key concepts here are local and social. I believe that this area provides ample opportunity for innovation and my guess is that in the next years we will see a ton of new services following the principle of usage over ownership. With services such as or Wimdu, people can share and use private apartments and houses. Rather than buying a car, why not share and use a private car via tamyca? Or consult a platform such as erento? Hey, I could even sneak in a little fanboy-ism here: Why having to store your music library locally when you can upload your files to Apple’s iTunes Match servers and stream your music to your devices? This service actually marks a shift towards usage over ownership: by using your local music files as a kind of currency you gain the right to access the respective online files.

It’s not a black-or-white world

Having said all this, I’m not suggesting that we will get rid of ownership altogether, not even in the long run. Depending on what makes your cookie crumble, you will want to own that hardcover copy of your favorite author’s new novel, that beautiful Beetle convertible, that seaside cottage. Rather, I’m convinced that in more and more areas we will have the choice – owning or using. (Image by great_sea)

About Roman Zenner
Ich bin ich

One Response to Some thoughts on ownership

  1. Pingback: Do we need shop software? « ecomPunk

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