Crossing borders with the iTunes Store

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While Apple’s iTunes Store, App Store and Mac App Store are international and available in most countries around the world, the stores aren’t as global as they ought to be. Though the Internet has no borders, Apple’s stores certainly do. A lapsed New Yorker, I’ve lived in France for nearly 30 years, and I’m planning to move to England in a couple of months. I contacted Apple to find out what I could do to transfer my French iTunes Store, App Store and Mac App Store accounts to the UK, and was very surprised at the answer I received.

In short, I can transfer the accounts—the actual Apple ID I use—but any content I bought would be subject to national borders. In other words, leaving France means leaving behind all the apps and other DRM-laden content that I’ve purchased from Apple over the years.

Two things came to mind. First, why the heck would Apple do this? And second, does this policy mean that I’ve tossed a lot of money out the window? This doesn’t apply to music without DRM (sold by the iTunes Store since 2009), which you can play anywhere, but it does apply to all other content Apple's digital stores sell: apps, movies, TV shows, books, and audiobooks.

If I compare with another major retailer of digital content—Amazon—the difference is striking. Amazon will move an account, along with any Kindle books purchased by that account, to another country. And if I had a Kindle Fire and had bought apps, I could also access them in the new country. (Amazon will even let me transfer my French Kindle account to their U.S. site.) But with Apple, this is not possible. The company says: “Content purchased from the iTunes Store is country-specific.”

Not so appy

Let’s start with apps. There is no logical reason to limit access to apps to the country where they were purchased. I’ve bought apps for my Macs and iOS devices from companies located in dozens of different countries; they simply use the App Store and Mac App Store as a marketplace. In addition, this means that those Apple apps that I linked to my Mac App Store account when I last bought a new Mac—the iLife apps—won’t be eligible for updates, even though I can use the same Mac in any country I want.

Most developers would probably be surprised to learn about this. I asked my friend, and fellow Macworld contributor, Rob Griffiths of Many Tricks, who sells apps in the Mac App Store, what he thinks of this. He had no idea that such policy existed, and said, “If you pay for one of our apps, you should be able to use it in a colony on Mars if you can relocate there.”

There is an exception for iOS devices:

“After you change countries, you will no longer receive application update notifications in iTunes for the apps you purchased in your original country. However, you’ll still receive update notifications on your iOS device for any applications installed on it.”

But you can only change the App Store account on an iOS device once every 90 days, so that would mean that when I log out of one store and log into another, I wouldn’t be able to change again for three months.

International cinema

What about movies? Granted, movie licensing is, to borrow a phrase from the late Steve Jobs, “a bag of hurt,” but why should Apple limit what access legitimate purchasers have to this content? Could the studios be causing this? The same question applies to TV shows; why should it matter if I bought them in one country and want to watch them in another? If you’ve ever tried watching, or even downloading, purchased movies or TV shows when on a business trip or on vacation, you’ve seen that this is possible. Why should it be different if I move?

I’m not surprised that these conditions exist for things such as movies and TV shows. We all know how complex licensing is for such content (and how rapacious movie studios are). On the other hard, it’s easy to use music in another country (as long as it doesn’t have DRM); just make sure you have copies (and backups) of all your music when you move. But why is Apple so draconian regarding apps, which are truly international in the sense that they’re sold in many of Apple’s different country stores?

(It’s worth noting that Apple’s stores are not even located in France, or the UK, and that they take advantage of the same porous borders they’re using as walls to be domiciled in countries with more advantageous tax codes. So they’re selling to me from Luxembourg, in order to pay lower taxes, but prohibiting me from moving my legitimate purchases within the European Union.)

Held to account

Apple should make this easier. I’m not the only Mac or iOS user to move from one country to another. This shouldn't be complicated for Apple to pull off. It seems that Apple, with everything involving its store accounts, is as inflexible as possible. You can’t merge accounts, or split accounts, such as when a couple separates or divorces. The moving limitation is artificial and unfair, and Apple needs to find a better way to ensure that I can use the content I buy from its stores. After all, there are technically no borders in Europe regarding commerce and travel. Why should it be different for Apple customers?

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