Can We Trust Digital Content?

The industry can't afford any compromise on consumer rights as we enter the digital age

It's not necessarily popular in all quarters, but there is a general acceptance that the transition to a digital future is underway. Plenty of debates still rage, primarily over the question of what exactly people are going to pay for (and in what manner they'll do so) in a world where little or nothing is distributed in physical form, but the crux of the argument - that physical product is on the way out - seems to be won. Even those who still believe in physical product admit that it's likely to end up as a niche product for enthusiasts, much like vinyl is for music fans today.

I'm among those who believe that this transition is inevitable. I'm a little too old to have lost my attachment to physical media entirely, but young enough to understand that it's truly a generational rather than a universal thing. I like having my movies and games in boxes, but digital music came along before I ever had a chance to build much of a CD collection, so there's simply no attachment for me there. I don't own a single piece of music in a physical format any more. This causes no pangs of pain to my heart, and I understand fully that for those a few years younger than me, games and movies are no different. Honestly, I'm going that way too - my DVD collection is about a third the size it once was. Even my bookshelves (which I suspect will be the final hold-out of non-digital media in my life) have shrunk.

"Consumer rights and corporate responsibilities in a digital world simply aren't defined or regulated in any sensible way"

Accepting that this transition is inevitable, however, doesn't mean that people have to be happy about how it's being managed - or about some of the things we're going to lose in the process. For years, we've been warned that digital products are pushing us into a place where consumer rights are far less clearly defined than they were in the physical age - that the natural rights which were conferred by physically owning an item are not guaranteed by having a copy of a file on your hard drive, or more likely, a license to access something that's stored somewhere in the Cloud.

To some degree, consumers have been willing to accept that trade-off. Services like Netflix, iTunes, Kindle and Steam have a superbly balanced proposition, one which encourages consumers to accept certain restrictions in return for a genuine improvement in their experience as consumers. They provide access to media in a flexible, powerful and usually competitively priced way that physical product can't rival, even if they also strip away certain important things like the right to resell things you own.

Besides, the logic goes, the worst case scenarios proposed by digital refuseniks are hardly likely to come to pass. Sure, digital distribution often includes methods by which a provider can remotely mess with your ability to enjoy a product - restrictive DRM which stops you loading it onto another device, for example, or more worryingly, the possibility that content you paid for will simply disappear tomorrow when the provider's DRM servers refuse to authenticate it. These are possibilities, but they're not relevant to most of us - are they?

To that extent, blatant abuses of consumer trust like this week's Rock Band iOS debacle are exceptionally useful. Customers who had bought Rock Band iOS were informed this week that the game would stop working on May 31st - even though it's still on sale at full price in the App Store. EA has since backtracked after public outrage, but the fact that this is possible and was even considered is a good thing to have out there in the public eye. Without wanting to single EA out specifically (because there are other examples of this), this is a clear and fairly appalling example of a company mistreating its customers in a way which is only possible because of the digital nature of the product. If I buy a game, movie, album or book in physical format, there's no way for the publisher to decide one day that I can no longer play, watch, listen to or read it. They simply don't have the ability or the right to do that. Digital distribution, however, has conferred that ability and that right, and sadly it's inevitable that it will be abused.

EA isn't alone in abusing it. Amazon has been caught out quietly removing books from customers' Kindles. A sports video service backed by ESPN and Microsoft several years ago simply shut down, taking its DRM servers and customers' entire libraries of purchased videos with it. That's even before we get into the question of subscription services, a whole other minefield of supposed consumer rights and actual corporate realities. The point is that these things aren't hypotheticals - they happened, and while in the present climate (where digital is still only part of the market) the culprits have generally been quick to backtrack, it's not safe or wise to assume that'll always be the case.

"The danger of the digital future is that we could end up with an industry disconnected from its consumers and acting blindly in short-term self-interest"

This is the core problem. Consumer rights and corporate responsibilities in a digital world simply aren't defined or regulated in any sensible way, and corporations are only too happy to suggest that we should simply trust them not to be evil. Consumers are buying things that aren't really products, but are instead limited and restrictive licenses to access certain kinds of data under certain circumstances - and few consumers are aware of how quickly that rug can be pulled out from under their feet. "Just trust us," say the corporations, which is frankly an absolutely terrible idea. A gun on the mantelpiece in act one is always fired by act three. If corporations are given the right to play fast and loose with consumer rights, they will absolutely do that, no matter what they promise today. The only way to stop the gun going off is to take it off the mantelpiece to begin with.

That's not just in the consumer interest, though - it's also in the interest of creatives and even of the publishers themselves. We need to remember that the audience for digital content isn't a captive one. We're not talking about water companies or power companies or monopolies on food or fuel here - we're talking about a luxury, non-essential product, and worse, we're talking about a luxury, non-essential product that's easily copied at zero cost to the consumer (and there's not much in the way of fancy DRM that can stop that in the present market).

So what happens if consumers despair of being mistreated over digital content? What happens if the pricing is abusively high (looking right at you, Xbox Live Games on Demand) or the consumer gets burned by service being shut off unfairly? What happens if DRM imposes onerous restrictions on which devices you can use, or if the lack of any kind of resale value simply makes it unappealing to buy new products?

Simple. Consumers stop buying, or they pirate. There are other hobbies, other outlets, other ways to spend your money and your time - and plenty of consumers will vote with their feet and their wallets if the industry doesn't treat them well. More importantly, though, the industry needs to recognise that as distasteful as it may be, they are in competition with piracy. If media is easy to access at a fair price, piracy doesn't thrive - at least not among those who are willing to pay. If it's overpriced, hard to access, surrounded by barriers or just downright untrustworthy, then piracy starts to creep away from the audience who were never going to pay anyway (and those piratical antics are an irritation and little more), and into the audience who actually wouldn't mind paying (and whose engagement with piracy is a genuine business concern and a sign that you're doing something desperately wrong).

This is the danger of the digital future - the danger that we could end up with an industry disconnected from its consumers and acting blindly in short-term self-interest, in a manner which ends up making paying for digital content look untrustworthy and unappealing. If the media industries should have one mantra for the next decade, it's this - "make consumers trust digital purchasing". Lots of other hurdles also need to be overcome, but if that fundamental mantra is not adhered to, the next few years will not see a digital boom, but rather a bonfire of companies and creatives.

Latest comments (23)

Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 5 years ago
Excellent piece. I own over 2000 games and counting, and hate the way too many games just VANISH into thin air over digital services without a word and the fact that the current market has NO support for gamers who have no way to get online content to spend money on these products, no matter how much they may wish to. The industry needs to realize that you can't turn away these people, hope they "catch up" to current technology in areas where it's not 100% possible even with the best intentions of service providers.

i don't trust digital-only future for all the reason mentioned, but security, access and info sharing are my main issues. I don't want people to know what I buy UNLESS i decide to let it be known through some survey or whatever reply form I decide to fill out on my own time. If I'm away from a game or device for a while, I don't want to find my data shuffled away or gone because some chip monkey thinks I'm not using the product because I haven't touched it in a few weeks. I own a lot of consoles and shift from one to the other, so my usage "patterns" cannot be (and should not be) tracked and generically packed into a specific profile.

As to games going buh-bye with the barest whisper, what sort of disrespectful nonsense is this? Imagine a museum where art that wasn't on the walls just disappeared from collections and no one knew about it until someone went to check on an obscure artist for an upcoming exhibit. As a medium, games deserve better. Hell, it's not like they're made on explosive nitrate film (although data corruption is probably the biggest issue with some content)...

Finally, off-topic, but I have to say that I know a few people who own music players but still have massive music libraries simply because (and you'll never know this until you hear it for yourself) the know that music just sounds better on vinyl or professionally taped than digitized.
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Peter Dwyer Games Designer/Developer 5 years ago
EA are in danger of really pissing off the general consumer. Luckily having EULA that pop up after a purchase has pretty much been rules unenforcable by american courts already (thanks to a few brave people bringing cases).

The problem here though is that the EULA in question pretty much tried to take all consumer rights away from the customer. Things like you can't sue us and we can change stuff at any time without notice. I strongly doubt that these statements are even legal. I know that you can't compel someone not to sue you or bring a class action.

At this stage if I were Apple I would be warning companies like EA that I would drop all of their software should this kind of EULA bullying be used by them. In that regard Apple would simply be pre-empting the massive consumer backlash that is bound to come if any attempt to actually carry out any of the actions stated in it is ever tried.
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Russ Cogman Senior Game Artist, Serious Games International5 years ago
DRM is one thing, after all it exists in the form of copy protection on all consoles from the last 20 years. However, my son won't be denied playing my SNES, Saturn, Dreamcast, Gamecube, PS1, PS2 etc, etc (man, I've got a lot of old consoles) because the software has to authenticate with a remote server to work. This is where I have absolutely no support for DRM as it places all the power in the hands of the publishers, who are only ultimately ever motivated by their bottom line.

There needs to be more legal powers in place that support the end user that explicitly prevent these types of abuses. Culture should be in the hands of people once it's released because as history has proven time and again, if it isn't it will disappear for future generations.
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Show all comments (23)
Darren Adams Managing Director, ChaosTrend5 years ago
Call me cynical, but I believe this was a move to get people doubting digital downloads so the physical products seem like a safer bet. Just a thought.
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The digital conversion can work if the public are assured all downloads/uploads are stored to a robust backup centre/locally allowing for free access at will to their purchased locker.
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Luis De Mendonca Service Desk Manager, SEGA Europe5 years ago
As an example of problems with digital. I bought Decimation X on XBox Indies for 80 MS points. I can't even play it if I am not signed into XBox Live. I have no problem being signed in but sometimes tech issues arise that we have no control over. What if someone digs up/steals some copper/optical cable? It could be weeks before I can access the net again. In the mean time I couldn't play any of my digital games. has got the right idea. DRM free and once you bought it you can do whatever you want with your purchase.
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Thomas Dolby Project Manager / Lead Programmer, Ai Solve5 years ago
I can understand that some companies that have servers managing multiplayer games or DRM may need to shut them down after a time, but I think that's the time to hand over the future of the game to the consumer, strip all the DRM from the game, allow people to make their own servers if they wish, and be honest and up front when you're going to remove a service.

With a healthy period of warning and a good explanation people will be no-where near as angry that their content has been removed, and corporations owe that as a minimum to their consumers if you ask me. It would be nice if we could trust companies to do this, but it's looking like legislation is the only way.
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Paul Shirley Programmers 5 years ago
Just another episode in the self destructive ongoing war against customers. The industry tries so hard to convince end users and lawmakers that piracy is evil, yet continue guaranteeing the pirates offer a better service.

I've spent the last 20 years automatically stripping the DRM from every CD/DVD locked game I buy, relying on some of the same hackers involved in powering piracy. Great way to build public tolerance for your enemy. Messing with digital downloads adds in tolerance for file sharing, sometimes the quickest way to grab the damn software to start with and a backup option they can't take away.

This industry has no more respect for it's customers than a farmer has for crops. Just drop enough manure on and collect the cash.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 5 years ago
@Peter Dwyer: That EULA you're talking about is actually a variation of one that's been around for a while. Google the documentary "Hot Coffee" and you'll see that nonsense started outside the industry and has spread into it based on some interesting political crap that should have never been put into place, as it screws every consumer here in the US when it comes to sensible (or even just) legal recourse.
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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 5 years ago
Ive been saying this for years to my friends and why i like having my stuff on disc and not tied to an account. If services like, PSN, Origin, Live or steam one day dissapears, so do the rights I have to play the games. It also happens that publishers and developers go out of business and their catalog of games dissapears from the online service they are sold on. And you cant make a copy of the installer, and to play the game you must register the serial code with the service and it must be online. Not everyone is online and alot of these services either shut down or go out of business. So really your paying for stuff that doesnt belong to you. I am always reluctant on purchasing games online because of this.

And its annoying me that i have to download the same game for every device. Why cant i play Hardcorps Uprising or Journey on my VITA. SONY also expects me to download my PS3 games again when PS4(orbis) comes out.

I would also like to have the ability to save my game installers on other media, such as external harddrives, USB flash drives, SD cards, memory sticks, DVD or blu-Rays. So if a publisher does go out of business and its catalog of games are pulled from, PSN, Origin or Steam, I can still install the games on my consoles or computer and still play them and the permission to play would still be registered on whatever service i purchased it from, regardless if the game is still on there catalog or not.

It would also be good if I can simply use a serial code to activate a game offline like older PC titles. Online features can be activated online because those features are required to be online to use.

You know, I have my PSN account, I never pirate anythingor mod my consoles. i try to play it legal... but if Im gonna spend money on something that doesnt belong to me, piracy starts looking more attractive. Just being honest.


Edited 2 times. Last edit by Rick Lopez on 4th May 2012 3:05pm

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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 5 years ago
@ Rick

Steam is, kind of an exception, and one of the reasons why so many people are pro-Steam. Gabe's gone on record in the past (though a good 2 or 3 years ago now?), as saying if the service is shut-down then all games will have their DRM stripped out. Though, to be honest, if any games are "dead" when a service goes down, the move to get NoCD cracks will be fairly damn quick, so the consumer, whilst slightly screwed over, isn't without a means to play their games.
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Andrzej Wroblewski Localization Generalist, Albion Localisations5 years ago
Ultimately regulatory agencies will actually start protecting the customer and the vendor from corpo cretins trying to bully people like the world was theirs already. Until then, we can only show what we think about such "phenomena" using brains before using our wallets.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Andrzej Wroblewski on 4th May 2012 6:28pm

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James Verity5 years ago
you will face the same problem we have with the "Release it now Patch it later" and the "that part of the game is DLC" scheme gamers have to put up with at the moment... as soon as the Dev/Publisher decides to turn it off, the game is wrecked in the future because the consumer got half a game, and it needs to be patched because it was release in a bug ridden state...

{quote} "we could end up with an industry disconnected from its consumers and acting blindly in short-term self-interest" - think we are already there... and its getting worse...

I have been stung by things I have purchased being removed from sale and removed from my access, and I can tell you now, I for one (of many) will not tolerate it... you will feel the force of your actions, double fold... you have been warned...

Edited 2 times. Last edit by James Verity on 4th May 2012 6:57pm

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Spencer Franklin Concept Artist 5 years ago
I find it rather amusing that the big companies that make the most noise about the evils of piracy, are the same idiots who continue to find new ways to make piracy look like a good option to consumers who would normally never even consider it.
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Tony Johns5 years ago
I do agree that the Physical market is going out in way of the dodo to the Digital market.

And I have no problems with that, because I know I have supported gaming with my bookshelf of games and other interests like collecting anime DVDs and Manga books.

However, I feel that there are the same restrictions to physical media as there are to digital media.

Physical media always had barriers like region lock on products as well as the long wait for something to be avaliable in one country in retail compared to another country that gets it earlier, sometimes the lesser country does not get the product at all and has to resort to import.

The digital market, if it keeps on making things region locked, it would betray those consumers who have suffered from region lock in days of old. And therefore piracy services that offer content that nobody else would provide for them would be the only option for them.

Other issues of digital content, like DRM as well as the fact that if the service goes down or if the company goes out of business and therefore no longer can be played online, then that would only result in the consumers getting new hobbies and a new videogame market crash would be certain.
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 5 years ago
@ Tony

They're very good points - Region Locking has been the bane of the consumer since the SNES days. With the move to digital there is actually no reason for it to still exist, legal restrictions excepted (no red blood in games in Germany, for example). And yet there are people who want to buy Arkham City on Steam, but can't because the G4WL component means it's restricted in certain countries. How anyone can think this is in anyone's best interests shocks me - you're preventing the consumer from buying the game. You're, essentially, making a pirate out of them. And why? Because of some curious thing with how countries are treated? Makes no sense. Digital should remove barriers to purchasing, not increase them.

Different release dates are another thing that belong in the past with the move to digital - world-wide releases would ensure the consumer gets the product at the same time as anyone else, and would prevent bitter feelings. "Oh, the US got it on Tuesday, but I have to wait until Friday". Whilst it makes sense to stagger releases so as to prevent bandwidth issues for the servers, this could easily be mitigated by having pre-loading be the norm, not the exception.
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Brian Smith Artist 5 years ago
I have hundreds of digital purchases on Xbox now. I can't resell them. Some of them I can't use unless connected, I can't loan them to friends. I can't swap them with friends and I have nothing in writing saying how long these companies will continue to host and support them.

IMO I have a hugely inferior product these days. One of the type, we were promised all those years ago, along with CDs, DVD's etc that would bring down the cost to the consumer. This hasn't happened. The industries have shown that they will take as much as they can get, literally for whatever product.

This will only get worse. More liberties will be tested, stretched, bent and broken. The real questions are :- What will be done to protect the consumer and when will it be done. We are already in this age. Since nothing has happened sofar to protect customer rights in relation to digital content what's going to provoke it to happen in the future. Are we waiting on the first global rip-off to slap us in the face before countries legislate for this.
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 5 years ago
It could be argued that the uproar over the lack of a sensible (that is, something that makes sense) ending in ME3 was a slap in the face to the consumer and consumer rights. And look at how the industry reacted to that.

Not that I would argue such a thing, but it's interesting to note how easy it was for a lot of industry-types to disregard how the consumer felt. Perhaps that was indicative of a wider contempt for consumer "digital rights"?

Then again, you don't need to open that can of worms, I suppose. As James V noted, we already have a "release it now, patch it later" mentality that means games are often released in a broken form, and that's not got anything to do with digital-only releases. Neverwinter Nights 2 had quite literally game-breaking SecuRom DRM; that was a physical release, and look how much attention the industry paid to correcting the mistakes shown by that. Yeah, that's right - none.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 6th May 2012 12:05am

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Daniel Chenoweth Freelance Editor, Reviewer, Writer 5 years ago
@Morville: "Though, to be honest, if any games are "dead" when a service goes down, the move to get NoCD cracks will be fairly damn quick, so the consumer, whilst slightly screwed over, isn't without a means to play their games."

This may have been the case up until now, but following the upcoming massive success of Diablo III, it seems even that ultimate fallback of last resort will soon no longer be an option for a lot of single-player games.

How many other publishers do you think are going to see Blizzard's success and go, "What a fantastic idea, let's make the single-player component of the next Call of Duty/Grand Theft Auto/FIFA/Elder Scrolls/Batman use a client/server model"? It stealthily excuses the requirement of constant online authentication under the guise of supposedly providing a "more consistent experience" for players.

And that is the only benefit to consumers: that you'll be able to take any of your single-player character into multiplayer games because Blizzard can ensure that you haven't been cheating.

Sure, we might trust Blizzard -- and they have a terrific track record supporting their old games ( servers are still running for the original Diablo) -- but what happens if (when?) this method becomes the norm for every major publisher?

The same type of people that bring us NoCD cracks are already working on server-emulators for Diablo III, but these are seen much more illegal in the eyes of the publishers and pursued far more actively. Even if the developers of these server-emulators manage to avoid the lawyers, the levels of complexity required to create this extreme method of DRM circumvention means they'll only be created for the most popular games, and as complexity increases, it will only get harder for them to accurately reproduce the experience of the legit game.

It really seems like this is where we are headed and the average consumer doesn't have the slightest clue that they're now just technically renting most of the games they buy today. One has to wonder how many of the games we pay for today will no longer function at all in ten years time.

And as the article above said, this is before we even mention subscription services.
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Al Rhodes Web producer/designer 5 years ago
An interesting and thoughtful article. When will games publishers realise that digital downloads are sales and not rentals. How you distribute them is irrelevant to ownership.

I for one would be happy to lose hard copies and the right to resell if they downloads were priced with those losses for the consumer built in. How can dlc cost anywhere close to the cost of a hard copy manufactured and distributed physically?

We should all worry with Apple's track record on iTunes that iPads and iPhones could one day end up being the gaming platform of choice (though I can't see it myself unless Apple create a games console).
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Craig Page El Presidente, Awesome Enterprises5 years ago
It's not really whether we can trust digital content, but whether we can trust the source of the content.

If it comes from the worst company in America, then no, you can't trust the content at all. Plus you're guaranteed to get overcharged by those EA payment servers.

If it comes from Microsoft? Probably not, you'll end up paying full price ($60) for something four years old that it's in the $10 bin at Walmart. And if anything happens to your xbox live account, your games disappear.

If it comes from Valve? Then probably, they have a good record of not trying to milk every last cent from their customers.

If it comes from Blizzard, then yes. We can definitely trust their digital content.
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Daniel Chenoweth Freelance Editor, Reviewer, Writer 5 years ago
Even if we feel we can trust a given company today, it lowers the risk, but still isn't a guarantee that their auth servers are still going to be around in ten years. Games history is full of companies that were once respected and either went bust or were bought out and dissolved into a megacorp.
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Curt Sampson Sofware Developer 5 years ago
I've considered every download game I've ever bought for my PS3 to be a rental. And even the disc ones, too. It's just the nature of the beast: one day many years down the road my PS3 will break, I'll be unable to buy another one, and that will be that for Uncharted.

Personally, I think a sensible change to copyright law would be to shorten the term drastically and give protection only to those who have registered a "public domain kit" for the game, i.e., materials appropriate for re-creating the game in a playable way fifty years down the road. That probably means handing your source code, asset and build tools repository to the British Library (or local equivalent) for release either when the copyright expires or when the owner is no longer making it available to the public.

The real point of copyright is not that we as a society believe that it's good for creators to be able to indulge in rent-seeking behaviour, but so we can encourage the creation of material that will go in to the public domain. We allow rent-seeking for a limited time because we believe that, if we didn't, many fewer works would be created in the first place.
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