Sony gives us timely reminders that digital ownership is still not trustworthy

Visualise this. You walk into a store to buy a Blu-ray disc of a movie you love, or a book that you really wanted to read. You pay, get a receipt and your purchases neatly placed in a carry bag. Now, what’s in the bag is yours forever. As assured as day after night. You can carry on with life knowing fully well the store employees won’t come around and demand the disc or the book back. Unfortunately, we’ve complicated things with the concept of digital ownership.

Representational image. (HT Photo)
Representational image. (HT Photo)

In the 2016 book ‘The End of Ownership: Personal Property in the Digital Economy’, authors Aaron Perzanowski and Jason Schultz note the concept of personal property and how owning a physical form of something isn’t the same as a digital version of the same. Take books for example.

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“Ownership of this book means you can do lots of things with it. You can keep it forever; you can read it as many times as you like; you can lend it to a friend; you can resell it or give it away; you can leave it to a loved one in your will. We don’t encourage it, but you can even burn it if you feel like it,” the book says.

That, however, isn’t how clicking on ‘Buy now’ for an ebook, music, artwork or games really works. The details often reside in the EULA, or end user license agreement, which we mostly dismiss with disdain. Who is going to read realms of fine print?

When we buy or rent virtual products, that is what we see on a PC or smartphone screen, and it is destined to remain behind that glass pane. Forever. It’s ‘convenience’. Immediate purchase, from the comfort of your home. The ease of downloading, if it is media content. Examples aplenty. Amazon’s Kindle e-book store. Stream’s popular game store for PCs. Convenient offline downloads for Apple Music or Spotify. A movie purchased on Google TV (formerly Play Movies & TV).

But the question is – do you really own a digital product? Or are you simply renting it, till you’re plainly lucky?

For instance, this is how Apple’s terms and conditions for media content across all its services including Apple Music, App Store, Apple TV+, Apple Arcade and Apple Books reads, “Purchased Content will generally remain available for you to download, redownload, or otherwise access from Apple. Though it is unlikely, subsequent to your purchase, Content may be removed from the Services (for instance, because the provider removed it) and become unavailable for further download or access from Apple.”

In the space of a few days, Sony’s given us two reminders of the shaky foundations that justify ownership of digital content. First came the news that in the markets where this content was sold thus far, a long list of Discovery’s shows that users would have purchased to add to their PlayStation entertainment libraries, in the hope of watching them whenever they wanted, will be removed at the end of this year.

You may wish to draw parallels with content that is added to, and removed from, streaming platforms quite regularly. But there’s a difference. These are specific pieces of content, paid for and purchased specifically by a buyer. Not rented, or part of a broader subscription. Outright purchased.

Sony and Discovery’s collective decision answers a question we asked earlier and pretty much summarises digital ownership – you own it in theory, till the group of companies involved in serving you that digital purchase decide you don’t anymore.

“As of 31 December 2023, due to our content licensing arrangements with content providers, you will no longer be able to watch any of your previously purchased Discovery content and the content will be removed from your video library,” is all Sony said, in official communication with PlayStation users.

That wasn’t the end of it. At the beginning of this week, users began to be locked out of their PlayStation accounts. For reasons unknown (Sony did begin corrective action soon). As it unfolded then, banned from the accounts they would have synced with their PlayStation consoles. No access to games purchased from Sony’s own online store. Limited functionality on available titles. No multiplayer games.

All in all, even worse news for digital-only console owners (these consoles don’t have a disc slot and rely solely on downloads), a growing trend with PlayStation 5 Digital Standalone and the Microsoft Xbox Series S. Though Sony managed to restore access for accounts blocked for some reason, Sony hasn’t shared the specifics of why what’s happened, had happened.

Would you be willing to risk potential brevity in ownership for the sake of convenience of buying everything digitally?

Anything that isn’t in physical form, and you’ve spent your money on as a “digital purchase”, is heavily dependent on trust. And hope. That the platform you’ve trusted with for this purchase will continue to allow you access to it, matching the expanse of time. Sounds good in theory, but rarely pans out that way.

“Companies that offer digital products – such as books, music, movies, and games – will often say that consumers can “buy” those products when they’re really getting only a limited, revocable license to enjoy them. Yes, some people may appreciate this distinction, but others have been surprised when their access to such products suddenly disappears,” wrote Michael Atleson, Staff Attorney for Division of Advertising Practices at the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC), in a post earlier this year.

Spoiled by the convenience of having everything a tap away, on our phones or tablets, we find ourselves firmly placed in an era defined by digital purchases, time may be ripe to go back to basics. Buying game discs. Physical books. Real art. You may’ve been saving space too (and the inevitable periodical clean-up exercise), but those stacks of game discs suddenly look more reliable.

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