You Don’t Own The Things You Buy

So you thought the digital music, movies, books, and games you buy are yours to enjoy forever? That's only natural to think, but you couldn't be more wrong.

It might not come as a huge surprise that you don’t own the music you listen to on Spotify, or the series and movies you watch on Netflix. These services are, after all, subscription based. If you cancel your subscription, you lose access to the service, and by natural extension, everything the service provided.

In many cases, you’ll find the same entertainment elsewhere. There’s a myriad of music and video streaming services online, and many of the them have much of the same content in their selection. There are, of course, a lot of exclusives, but in the case of movies and series, you often only watch them once anyway.

So what about the digital books and computer games you actually purchase? You own them like you would a physical copy, right?

No, that’s not the case.

Let me Tell You A Tale

After Telltale Games went bust in November last year, their games have gradually been removed from online store fronts. In pre-internet times, when physical distribution was a publisher’s only option, this would have been natural. Since no more physical copies would have been printed, the games would eventually disappear from store shelves.

With digital distribution, however, creating a new copy of a game is trivial. The IP owner could have continued digital distribution of Telltale Games titles with the caveat that the buyer would not receive any technical support. I don’t know why the owner of Telltale Games’ IP didn’t do this, perhaps it requires more administration than I imagine.

That Telltale Games titles are no longer available to purchase is a shame, but what happens to the gamers who have already purchased their games? In early June, Game Informer reported that Minecraft: Story Mode would be removed from online stores later this month. Not only does this mean that you can no longer buy the game, it also means that people who already own Minecraft: Story Mode will not be able to download the game.

The physical distribution equivalent would have been for the game’s published to come to your house, and run off with the physical copy of the game. I hope you have good backups!

Digital Rights Management

A similar thing, but with wider fallout, happened in April. Microsoft closed the books section in their online store, which made it impossible to buy and rent books. Even worse, starting July, any digital book purchased from the Microsoft store will no longer be available to read1.

The physical distribution equivalent would have been for a book store owner that permanently closed their shop to come to your house, grab all the books you’ve purchased from them, and light a book burning fire in your backyard. Would that have sparked an outrage? You betcha.

The root of all this evil is Digital Rights Management (DRM). When you purchase an item that is controlled by DRM, you don’t really own the item. Instead, you purchase a license to temporary use the item. “Temporary” because the license can be revoked at any time, or the company that provide the license can go bust.

Go DRM-FREE (Or Use Subscriptions)

If you can, avoid purchasing anything from stores that use DRM. Instead, use DRM-free alternatives. There are some, like for video games, OpenBooks for literature2, and eMusic for audio. But don’t be shocked if you don’t find what you’re looking for. Many popular titles are nowhere to be found as legal, DRM-free purchases.

For many people, using a subscription service would be a better option. If you, for instance, listen to a lot of music, you can potentially save a great deal of money by subscribing to a music service instead of purchasing albums and singles. The problem with the subscription model, however, is that the amount of money that reach the content creator is tiny. This can potentially make it hard for unknown, independent creators to make any money. Also, you’d normally lose access to everything the subscription offers if you cancel your subscription.

The bottom line is that DRM is a terrible thing for consumers. Avoid it if you can.

  1. Microsoft was kind enough to offer a full refund for every purchase. But don’t expect the same from other vendors. ↩︎

  2. It’s worth noticing that some of the books sold by Amazon are sold without DRM per the publisher’s request. ↩︎


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