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Digitally Disowned

17 June, 2013 - Source: Else

All your stuff are belong to us, actually*.

(Thoughts on ownership of digital property)

  • Digitally disowned
    Digitally disowned

What the heck do I even own these days? I don't seem to own anything anymore. I know I'm still spending money, my anaemic bank balance assures me of that. So what the chuff am I spending it on?

Somewhere around the heady days of 2001, I remember taking a particularly cumbersome flight to some far off land, loaded up with everything I'd need to entertain me. I had a MiniDisc player (ha! Remember those?), a case of ten discs, headphones, a Game Boy with accompanying games, a large Dilbert book and an SLR camera. That was just in my flight bag, let alone the weighty laptop sleeping in the luggage deck below.

Then, about a year ago, I took the same flight and was vaguely amused to note that I now managed to truncate all that entertainment down into only one tiny device that slipped easily into my pocket. Progress! I appeared to have streamlined my life. But at the same time I seemed to have lost something. I'd lost control. I'd lost ownership.

It's been galling me a bit recently. The launch of XBox One made the hackles on the back of my neck raise slightly. I never intend to buy one, sure, but that's mostly down to the fact that I just don't play games anymore. What did bother me though, was this notion that although I might shell out upwards of £50 for a game, they've made pains to point out that it is still not wholly mine to do with as I please. A physical product that I've paid outright for is not mine! I find that notion outrageous, and furthermore outright dangerous. Imagine if this model spread to other industries? I sold my old car a few years ago, I didn't see Nissan fighting for a cut. Because it was MINE. I don't see Penguin books kicking in doors of local Oxfams, demanding a percentage. The nerve of Microsoft (or, indeed the offending subsidiary publisher)! The outright bloody greed! I GAVE you my money. It is now MINE to do with as I please. Tentative kudos to Sony for kicking against this model with the PS4. Let's see how long it lasts.

But then this notional problem of physical ownership is nary a drop in the ocean compared to the troubling world of digital ownership just starting to bubble over. Intangible goods, increasingly reliant on the service they're supplied by still being around in a few years time to justify the hundreds of pounds I pour into it. So far I've managed to retain a largely digital ownership that can be downloaded and saved offline, but this is increasingly becoming less of an option as companies move towards more cloud based services, tied into proprietary apps. Ah, the cloud! Sounds so friendly, doesn't it? Yet it's an appropriate metaphor for the products themselves. I can see it, but I can't touch it. It slips through my fingers, and one day will very likely disappear into thin air.

I'm not a Spotify man. I like to own my music. It's an attachment. A statement. It's a definer. I have over 1500 CDs (I'm no vinyl purist either) and I love every one. I love browsing them, I love pouring over the artwork. I love the fact that they'll still be there when my crappy Internet connection conks out. They'll still be there when Spotify goes bust. They'll still be there when we all have computers in our eyeballs or something. Most importantly, they'll still be there when my iTunes has another mega crash that wipes out my entire MP3 collection, like it did in 2007. Fun times! Thanks Apple.

I remember guffawing at Napster when it went legit and asked for £15 a month to download as much music as you like, but the second you didn't pay, it disappeared in a puff of smoke. I shouldn't have laughed. They were eerily prescient about the way the notions of digital music ownership was going. Subscriptions are the future, but I refuse to comply. I want something to show for all the money I'm spending. I understand the convenience, but as I think we've already established, I am rapidly becoming the stoic dinosaur in this digital age. Music, to me, should never be a disposable commodity.

Equally, the murky and fraught world of digital publishing is rapidly becoming a space that has already seen its fair share of controversies and irritations. But where the music industry kicked against the rising tide of digital formats, the publishing industry does seem at least to be tentatively embracing it, whilst still cautiously keeping one foot out of the pool. Whilst book publishing has been backed by the likes of Amazon and Apple, with cloud and downloadable content, the comics industry seems to be unfortunately embracing a more restrictive and impermanent method.

The rise of Comixology, for my money, has been a short term blessing, but could well become a long term curse. Whilst it has helped introduce people back to comics (no mean feat in this day and age, where comics are still often perceived as being purely for children) it has also adopted a business practice that serves content to only registered devices, and are unavailable for offline backup. They cannot be saved. They cannot be shared. For a medium that evolved through the process of being passed around, this seems intrinsically apposite to the whole notion of comics. As far as I'm aware, only the great 2000AD is offering a subscription service that allows for downloads in PDF and CBR formats. And for that I will gladly pay and store away. Tharg, I salute you.

But my concern for the Comixology solution, adopted by the heavy hitters like Marvel and DC, is that we as consumers do not own the content. We are served it. We are wholly dependant on that content provider being available and accessible until the day we die. Given that we live in a Capitalist society, and not some sort of technological Utopia, please forgive me if I do not overly trust a company that sells comics still being around in say 10 years time to make sure my investment of hundreds, or even thousands of pounds is a financially sound one. And by the way, we're paying largely the same price for it as we would for a print copy. It may not be taking up room in my house, but it sure is still drilling a hole in my bank account.

To those who may accuse me of Doomsaying, this situation is not entirely without precedent. Back in 2001 (hello again!), a weekly online comic launched called CoolBeansWorld. To say it was ahead of its time is somewhat of an understatement, given that Britain's oldest comic,The Dandy, is only now 12 years later adopting much the same model. It was an online comic intended for older readers, much in the vein of 2000AD. Indeed it shared many of their creators and artists, who attempted to push what the pre-broadband web was capable of. For whatever reason, in those pre-Twitter and Facebook days, it obviously found no audience and suddenly closed its doors and fell offline after going into receivership after only a few months. Just another dot com casualty. What I learnt from this mess, though, was to never trust a service that stored your purchases online, and didn't allow for a local copy to be saved. I paid £50 for a yearly subscription, and I have exactly nothing to show for that initial outlay now. Not even a screenshot.

More recently I had an experience with a print publication that has since closed down. But before shutting its doors, their issues were available on their Newsstand App which I dutifully shelled out for each Issue. After running out of space on my iPad, I erased everything to start again. But when it came to re-downloading the issues I had previously bought, the app just cycled endlessly. Those issues are gone, and with them the money I spent.

Amazon themselves recently came under fire when, in a move that would've made George Orwell chuckle darkly to himself, they remotely wiped his books from all purchaser's Kindles. Whilst their intentions may have been honourable (the editions in question were illegal counterfeits, not distributed by the proper publisher), it was a sobering reminder to everyone that what appeared on their Kindle was not completely in their control. It's a but like Waterstones breaking into your house, punching you in the face and then nicking all their books back. Anything can be removed at any time. Or indeed changed. I bought 'Life of Pi' on iBooks a while ago and the cover recently changed to match the film that came out. It felt vaguely like someone sneaking into my living room and replacing the pictures on my wall with adverts. Confession: I still haven't read it.

Last example. You know all those apps you've bought for your phone? Don't expect them to be around forever either. Not least because your phone software provider can remove them from their stores willy nilly, but update after update they will eventually cripple older apps a developer can no longer update. Even worse, as older hardware becomes obsolete, so too will the purchases you bought for it. How do I know? Did you buy any games for your iPod Classic a few years ago? Can't find them now, can you? They've been erased, leaving only a bad taste in mouth.

And that's the problem. All these activities don't exactly engender a level of confidence or trust in a potential consumer, particularly ones who have had their fingers burnt before. Irrespective of product, i'd say showing any degree of mistrust or disdain in your intended audience is probably not the best business practice. Failure can only be inevitable. I truly hope none of this is the case, but as one of the former finger singed, I don't feel entirely optimistic that when i'm 80 I can still peruse my digital copy of Batman, whilst happily digging out the old issues of Transformers from the stacks of comics gathering dust at the back of my cupboard.

Whether it's comics, music or games, this new system of cloud-based, device-tied purchasing to me is no better than a newer form of DRM. The digital rights have certainly been managed, and not in our favour. The great irony of Microsoft's desire to 'socialise' our gaming experience (urgh) excludes the only thing I'd actually like to share with my friends: the game itself. Until someone can guarantee these wafty, invisible things I buy will be around for the rest of my days, I'll keep lugging around all the things I own; from hard drive to hard drive, from house to house. Safe in the knowledge that if I lose them it was MY fault.

Because they're MINE.



*No, not a typo. It's a tip of the hat to 'All your base are belong to us'.

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