I recently came across this article from Derek Haines at Just Publishing. It aims to cheer up those of us put off by recent attempts from Amazon and Apple to set up a “Netflix for books:” a service offering unlimited access to books for a monthly fee. The Internet has responded to announcements made by these two corporate giants with scorn, the gist of which is, “The library is already a Netflix for books! Why do you need anything else?” I won’t comment too much on this—Book Riot’s Kelly Jensen has an excellent rebuttal—but I will say that the convenience e-books provide travelers and students with budget and space constraints cannot be matched by conventional printed texts. That being said, the idea that e-booksellers will allow users to lend, resell, or give away their purchases is, at best, laughable, because history has not been kind to people who assume ownership over their digital purchases.
In 2005, as Microsoft geared up to launch its second console, the Xbox 360, the corporation marketed its product to varied demographics through user archetypes identified by gamertags: Striker, VelocityGirl, and BeatBuilder. At that year’s E3 conference, J. Allard claimed that VelocityGirls—users who “might pick up a controller every once in a while over at a friend’s house”—would love the Xbox 360 Marketplace, which would allow her “to design and sell stickers, shirts, boards, soundtracks, and even … her own [levels].” This sounded great at the time; I was a creative young gamer who longed to see video games become truly mainstream. After all, what could possibly be better than a commerce hub that was primarily based around gaming?
Unfortunately, for reasons unknown, Microsoft decided to renege on its promises to VelocityGirl. The Marketplace existed, yes, but the ability to create and sell in-game merchandise had been scrapped. The items were still there, but were created and owned by Microsoft and its game manufacturers, not individual gamers. There was no question whether the Xbox 360 console or its Marketplace had the capability to allow e-commerce; with a wide variety of customization options at almost every level in almost every game, the hardware was not crippled in any way. VelocityGirl had disappeared, just as quietly as her product lines: never to be heard from again. This was not to be the only time Microsoft offered fans more control over their content, only to pull the plug at the last minute.
In 2011, a year after it acquired app developer Slide, Google announced it was closing SuperPoke! Pets (SPP): a digital game—available on PC and Facebook—which allowed users to care for a small animal pet, and decorate its environment with a variety of items. Like most social games, SPP offered users the opportunity to make micro-purchases; some items required paid currency to acquire. These “gold items” were valuable to players, because of both their rarity and the real-life money used to buy them. While most premium items were priced around US $1, some sold for as much as US $50. When Google shut down SPP, it left users no avenue by which they could recover their monetary losses. Julianne Pepitone at CNN writes that this course of action “erodes the trust that keeps the entire virtual-goods economy afloat.”
SPP fans demanded monetary recompense, but to no avail. The legal perspective is this: items purchased on a certain platform must remain on that platform; if the platform dies, its items go with it. Most digital retailers—like iTunes and Amazon—attribute ownership of bought materials to the purchasing account, which means that if your account is closed, no matter the reason, you will lose the right to access your content; under the law, you have no direct connection to your purchases.
When Microsoft stripped fans of ownership rights over their digital content purchases, admittedly, it was only giving them what they asked for. At E3 2013, Microsoft announced that policies for its new console, the Xbox One, would make digital game copies more like their disc-based counterparts by allowing users more flexible access to them. In addition to being able to access owned games and content on any Xbox One just by signing in—no discs required—Microsoft also planned to allow games on an Xbox One console to be playable by any user, regardless of their relationship to, or the presence of, the original purchaser. The new console would give users the opportunity to maintain a family circle of ten friends, whose games would be pooled together as digital content available for use by all. Finally, Microsoft announced the ability to give away digital game copies just as if they were physical discs; the license would transfer to a friend, who would then own the game.
In a politically-strategized follow-up campaign, competitor Sony made fans believe that Microsoft was cheating them and ruining the market. Blind and ignorantly outraged, Xbox fans threatened to abandon the new console unless Microsoft changed its policies. Less than two weeks later, Microsoft announced that it would no longer allow downloaded games to be shared or resold—even with friends and family—and that playing games on a friend’s console would require a disc to be in the tray.
Gamers seemed mildly satisfied with Microsoft’s modifications, but many continued to decry the industry giant for their progressive attempt at closing the gap between physical and digital content. While there are still legal divides that must be closed before digital ownership rights can be fully fleshed out, Microsoft seems to be leading the charge in giving the consumer rights equal to the manufacturer. Earlier this year, in an interview with Gamespot’s Eddie Makuch, Phil Spencer said, “[W]e understand what games you own and … who you might want to loan rights to your games or gift your games to. … We totally believe in that future.”
Although e-books are not video games, they are digital content, which, as we have seen, currently belongs more to the retailer than the buyer. While Haines overlooks the larger fight over ownership rights in his article, he does have a point. The market will eventually evolve to the extent that e-books may be borrowed, lent, and resold, just the same was their physical counterparts. This won’t happen any time soon, however, especially with powerhouses like Amazon and Apple behind the drive to make reading an exclusively digital activity. Readers who prefer tangible texts may want to take a page out of the Xbox fans’ playbook and start a media firestorm. In doing so, we can at least hope to swing the market back toward the ethical side of things.
What’s your opinion on the digital vs. physical debate? Let me know in the comments!