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Amazon and Apple Just Made Buying Digital Media a Lot More Attractive

Buy an app, a book or other digital stuff from their stores, and your family members can download the same thing for free.

Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

If you spend any time at all buying digital music, movies or other media, you get used to dealing with nonsensical rules about what you can and can’t do with the things you bought. But every so often the digital media business surprises you and gets it right.

So here’s one of those pleasant surprises: Both Apple and Amazon are going to let their customers share stuff they’ve bought from their digital storefronts with family members. Just like you can in real life.

In what is likely not a coincidence, both companies are using similar terms to describe their programs, and both are coming out around the same time. Apple calls its plan “Family Sharing,” and it’s available to people who are using its new iOS 8 software that rolled out today. Amazon calls its plan “Family Library,” and it will be available at the end of October, along with a new set of hardware and software updates the company just announced.*

Both programs also have restrictions, but have a straightforward pitch: If you buy something from one of their stores, you can download digital copies to multiple devices. So if your husband buys one of the “Game of Thrones” books for his Amazon Kindle, you could also read it on your Kindle Fire tablet, or read it on your Kindle app on your iPhone. Or your kids could download a “Guardians of the Galaxy” app to their iPad for free, if you’ve already bought one.

About those restrictions: Amazon says its program will only apply to apps, books, audiobooks, movies and TV shows available via its Prime Instant Video program. So this won’t work for music or any videos you’ve purchased or rented. Apple’s fine print, meanwhile, notes that “not all content types are available in all countries,” but reps wouldn’t spell out what that means.

Both companies also have systems designed to minimize sharing beyond your “family,” so don’t expect to hand out books you bought like they’re an HBO Go account. Amazon, for instance, requires everyone sharing content to have Amazon accounts with the same billing address.

But even with the asterisks and omissions, this is a good thing. Neither company is charging a premium for this, and both seem to be making a good faith effort to let you consume stuff you bought, when and where you like.

Imagine that.

* About those new Amazon devices and operating system updates — there are many of them, and they seem more evolutionary than revolutionary. But you can judge for yourself:

  • A new version of Amazon’s high-end Fire HDX tablet, which will start at $379.
  • New versions of Amazon’s low-end Fire HD tablets, starting at $99.
  • A “kids edition” of the Fire HD tablet — the same tablet as the grown-up version, packaged with a kid-friendly case, a two-year “no questions asked” guarantee and a year of “FreeTime Unlimited,” Amazon’s subscription service that features kids’ movies, games and apps.
  • New Kindle readers: A high-end Voyage version for $199 and a low-end version at $79.
  • New Kindle software features and new Kindle Fire operating system built on Android’s KitKat.

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