A handful of digital services will be terminated this year, and you’ve probably bought digital copies of games or movies from them. You’ve purchased this digital property, but there’s a chance that you won’t be able to keep it.
The number of times that users have been unable to access digital content that they have paid for is unprecedented. We aren’t discussing something theoretical, either; this is something that’s happened in the past and will continue happening in the future.
You’ll Probably Lose Some Digital Property This Year
It’s fair to assume that a ton of digital services will shut down in 2019; that’s just the way things work. But the big three that we know about are the Wii Shop Channel, the Ultraviolet movie streaming service, and the Google+ social network. At some point or other, these were pretty popular services, and their termination may cut you off from the digital property for which you’ve paid.
The Wii Shop Channel was a service that sold digital copies of video games, and most people used it to purchase classic Nintendo games. The service was discontinued this past month (January 2019), and the only way to save your purchases was to download them on your Wii console—you couldn’t transfer those purchases to newer Nintendo consoles.
Ultraviolet is a video service that lets you purchase movies. Some DVD’s come with codes that you can use to redeem a digital copy of the movie on Ultraviolet. This is mostly a movie streaming service, but you can use it to download movies if you put in a little bit of work. Sadly, Ultraviolet is shutting down on July 31, 2019. If you want to save your Ultraviolet purchases, the company suggests transferring licenses to a competitor’s service, like Movies Anywhere. These competitors are probably just trying to poach the remaining Ultraviolet users, but if it weren’t for them, you’d lose all of your Ultraviolet purchases.
Google+ is shutting down on April 2, 2019, and Google is going to clear all of the data from the Google+ servers. But you have the opportunity to save your data (a form of digital property) before Google kills the service. This isn’t really property that you’ve purchased, but it’s valuable for personal and public archives, and the loss of this data will probably come as a source of mild frustration for archivists in the future.
Looking at this list, you’ll notice an annoying trend. These services, which are either failing or being discontinued, aren’t really doing anything to preserve your digital property. They put that responsibility on the customer.
It’s kind of understandable for Ultraviolet and Google+. Ultraviolet can’t afford to offer a solution, and Google+ was a flop from the get-go. But why is Nintendo operating like this? You’re not going to boot up your old Wii to play a download of Super Mario Bros 3, so why can’t you just transfer that purchase to one of the other four digital platforms that sell Super Mario Bros 3?
For that, you can blame DRM.
Most Digital Property Is Controlled By DRM
Digital Rights Management (DRM) is an anti-piracy measure that prevents you from producing or using illegal copies of downloaded material. It’s a digital form of the anti-piracy signals on VHS tapes. Usually, a file that’s locked with DRM can only be opened by a specific user on a specific software platform.
Steam games, iTunes purchases, and Wii Shop Channel games are all considered DRM protected content. You can theoretically download and move these files onto any device, but only a certified user with the right software can open these files.
DRM also makes it extremely difficult to transfer old files over to new hardware. The Wii Shop Channel is an obvious example, and in the case of iTunes purchases, a common complaint is that users can’t figure out how to transfer their library to a new computer.
Streaming services like Ultraviolet and Amazon Video technically utilize a form of DRM to prevent piracy. When you purchase a movie on these services, you’re really purchasing a streaming license that’s connected to your account, not an actual copy of the movie. Some social media services also have forms of DRM for obvious security purposes. You can’t download another user’s data, and you can’t download your data unless you know your password.
Right from the get-go, there are some obvious drawbacks to this format. If Apple goes out of business and iTunes shuts down, will you still be able to open the files that you purchased? If you’ve purchased a game or a movie on one platform, then shouldn’t you be allowed to open that file using whatever you’d like?
Distributors Are Forced To Use DRM
Before we complain too much about DRM, you should know that distributors have no choice but to use it. The companies that own your favorite music, books, and movies are deeply concerned about any form of piracy, and they haven’t forgotten how Napster rattled CD sales.
Licensing companies also want to continue the 20th-century trend of reselling old media in new formats. When cassettes got big, people replaced the albums that they already had on vinyl with cassettes. People replaced their cassettes with CD’s, and they replaced their CD’s with digital files. With the invention of digital files, you’d think that re-packaging music would be a thing of the past. But people kept getting screwed over by DRM protection, and it wasn’t uncommon for someone to re-purchase a digital album.
A lot of people criticized iTunes for its DRM policy in the late 2000s, and it was such a big issue that in 2007, Steve Jobs published an open letter explaining why iTunes uses DRM. The letter, titled “Thoughts On Music,” was meant to explain to customers how Apple was forced to use DRM by the “big four” music licensing companies, Sony BMG, Warner, and EMI.
When Apple approached the “big four” licensing companies to build the iTunes library, the companies “were extremely cautious” and they contractually “required Apple to protect their music from being illegally copied.” If Apple wanted to sell music, they had to sign extremely strict contracts. These contracts were so strict that if Apple’s “DRM system [was] compromised” and music from iTunes became “playable on unauthorized devices,” then the licensing companies could “withdraw their entire music catalog” from iTunes with less than a month’s notice.
Music licensing companies forced Apple to use DRM in their products, and in some cases, these DRM measures technically prevent consumers from actually owning the media that they’ve paid for. This idea extends to all forms of digital property, including video games and movies.
You Don’t Own Your Digital Property; You Rent It
Here’s where things get a little bit awful. Your inability to own your digital property isn’t just theoretical. According to the licensing agreements that you sign with almost any digital distributor, you’re “licensed” to use your digital purchases — you don’t own them.
The Amazon Kindle license agreement makes this extremely clear. It states that content “is licensed, not sold,” and Amazon “reserves the right to modify, suspend, or discontinue” their service “at any time” without “liability.” So, you don’t own your Kindle purchases, and Amazon can take them away from you at any time without giving you a refund.
This you-don’t-own-it clause is extremely popular among content distributors. A more relevant example might be the Wii U license agreement, in which Nintendo states that “software is licensed, not sold, to you.” Nintendo takes this a step further by claiming that, if they feel the need to terminate your licensing agreement, then “you will immediately cease all use” of Wii U software. Is that… a threat?
Other services, like Amazon Music, Steam, Sony’s PlayStation Network, and Xbox Live have similar clauses in their user agreement. Using this kind of clear language is a good way to shut down any lawsuits, and as you can imagine, it’s common practice among digital distributors.
Yes, the “Buy Now” button on every Kindle product page is misleading. It’s frustrating. Even more frustrating is their video service where Amazon openly presents both rent and buy options. We suppose “Rent” and “Rent Indefinitely, But You Definitely Don’t Own It” buttons aren’t as enticing.
At this point, “digital property” probably isn’t the right word for what we’re trying to describe. This is more like a furniture loan or a gym membership, “digital rentals” may be a better term.
Businesses Aren’t Obligated To Protect Your Purchases
This all comes back around to a big scary question. What happens to your digital property when a company or service is terminated? From what we’ve seen, companies put the responsibility on purchasers to download content before a service shuts down, even if DRM prevents them from using the digital property in the future.
Let’s pull the band-aid off right now. Businesses don’t care about you; they care about your money. If a business is collapsing, they have little incentive to guarantee access to your digital property. Even if some angelic distributor decided to offer you lifelong accesses to DRM-free copies of your purchases when it went out of business, it would probably get slapped with a handful of lawsuits for violating licensing contracts.
Some businesses have put out the vague notion that everything will be okay, but it isn’t very promising. A few years ago, a Reddit post about Steam’s DRM policy got a lot of attention. A user asked Steam Support if he would have access to his games upon the (theoretical) discontinuation of the Steam network. The Support tech assured that “measures are in place” to allow purchasers to access their content forever. But these games are protected by forms of DRM, and the Steam user licensing agreement itself states that “content and services are licensed, not sold.”