A cautionary tale about why to back up iTunes content locally

One of the big selling points of iCloud (s aapl) is that you can now access all your past iTunes store purchases on any device associated with your Apple ID. It’s a big plus when it comes to getting music on a variety of devices, for instance, and a competitive advantage for Apple’s media sales ecosystem. But users who depend on it too heavily stand the chance of getting burned, as one customer recently discovered.

An iTunes customer who wished to remain anonymous reached out to us after he recently tried to re-download a book he’d purchased previously from the iBookstore from his past purchases in iCloud. To his surprise, the title was no longer listed as among his available content. He contacted iTunes support for a resolution, and was greeted with a somewhat unsettling response: If the content has been “modified,” it could be permanently removed from a user’s list of available downloads.

The book in question was still available on the iBookstore, albeit at a different price than originally purchased. ITunes support said in an exchange with our source that its removal from past purchases was directly a result of the book having been “modified in terms of pricing” since the original purchase date.

Unsurprisingly, Apple actually makes allowances for this sort of thing in its iTunes Terms & Conditions. The section titled “Automatic Delivery and Downloading Previous Purchases” contains the following stipulation:

Some iTunes Eligible Content that you previously purchased may not be available for subsequent download at any given time, and Apple shall have no liability to you in such event.

But in its more customer-friendly support documents and promotional sites about iCloud, Apple says content might be unavailable only “if they have been refunded or are no longer on the iTunes Store.” It’s a slight difference, but one that in the case of the more dense document allows for the kind of behavior our source ran into with his iBook purchase, yet can’t be explained by the more customer-oriented second quoted phrasing.

In the end, this could be up to Apple’s individual deals with various content providers; book publishers may be able to stipulate that pricing changes can mitigate past purchase availability, while App Store developers don’t seem to have this leniency. We tried contacting Apple to get the company to clarify its position, but have yet to hear back. We’ll update this story if we get a response.

Cloud content storage is inherently fraught with questions of ownership; the same sort of problem arose for Amazon (s amzn) when it remotely deleted on-device copies of 1984 by George Orwell purchased through its Kindle store. In this case, at least Apple isn’t chasing down locally stored copies, but it still illustrates the nebulous nature of ownership when it comes to cloud-stored and supplied content.

If there’s one lesson to take out of this user’s experience, it’s that those who absolutely want to ensure their content remains available to them should store copies locally. Of course, that takes away one of the key benefits of using cloud-stored media in the first place, but for now at least, it’s the only way to guarantee continued access.