I’ve always been a little suspicious of digital ownership and things that exist only online. Even back in the early days of buying CDs on iTunes and being forced to log in to my account if I wanted to listen to them on my computer, I was always a compulsive downloader and hard copy producer. After all, you could get around the limits of iTunes if you burned a CD and then ripped the songs off the CD using a different service than iTunes. Made it a lot easier to transfer music from the family PC (which was the only PC connected to the internet in my family’s house for a very long time) to my personal laptop (which wasn’t allowed to connect to the internet and didn’t even have wi-fi capability since I bought it with my saved-up babysitting money when I was 13). It’s not like I was giving the music to anyone or sharing it with people. I just wanted to get the Scrubs Soundtrack: Volume 2 from the family PC to my laptop so I could listen to while I wrote stuff or played Age of Empires II.
Since then, I’ve felt more and more justified in my mistrust of digital ownership as the primary vehicle for a lot of modern media. The internet is full of stories of people losing access to their digital libraries, either through unrecoverable music service accounts, closed amazon prime accounts, the ever-present specter of death coming to claim an old online game’s final servers, or the more recent sudden deletion of media as a new aspect of the usual corporate grift by a company working its way through consolidation. Not to mention the bevy of single-player games that had an always-online portion to them which now can’t be played because that online component is no longer supported by the developer. Plus the weird sites I can’t find anymore that let you digitally own movies before every single major network or movie studio decided to create their own streaming platform, while they were still resisting digital ownership on iTunes and Amazon. You know, the websites you used to go when you wanted to redeem the digital copy coupons that came in the big DVD/Blu-ray combo pack for major film releases.
A pretty frustrating picture begins to appear once you toss in all the other egregious examples of digital rights abuse like a huge number of NFTs, digital art theft (I’m looking at you, “AI” image production algorithms and those bots that scrape social media sites to create and sell unlicensed t-shirts), and plain old copyright infringement. The legal system just isn’t really for digital rights management and the existing systems are an enormous mess of one-off decisions that have somehow managed to shape the industry. It’s a huge, complex web of rights, legal systems, and capitalistic abuse that I’m certainly not going to be able to solve here. Hell, I can barely even comprehensively complain about it without needing to do some research to ensure my complaints are at least factually correct.
The one corner I feel the most qualified to discuss, given my own experiences, is the video game side of things. For example, I’ve been struggling lately with playing Splatoon 3. The game keeps disconnecting my switch from the internet despite my efforts to remove any barriers that could explain this weak connection on my end, to the degree that I’ve begun to get temporarily banned from online play when it happens. What’s most frustrating is that there’s very little of the game that I can enjoy on my own without using the internet. The primary focus of the game is the online matches and whatever system is in place to connect people might wind up preventing me from connecting at all. This isn’t the first game I’ve had this level of trouble with, or even the most egregious offender (though it does have an immediacy that is frustrating because it is otherwise an amazing game). I’ve had days of being unable to play Destiny 2, lost access to an Assassin’s Creed game, and own a whole pile of unplayable digital titles that I can only get access to if I spend money on moderately old Nintendo systems (my Wii’s network card just doesn’t work anymore).
It’s a frustrating problem, to own something and be unable to enjoy it. A problem that’s becoming more and more common with every passing year, as old consoles die, leaving game discs to gather dust in the corner since any attempt to maintain access to that game other than though official channels (which frequently means paying again) is treated as piracy. I’m not entirely unsympathetic to getting developers paid. Despite production costs skyrocketing (which is it’s own entire week of blog posts), game prices haven’t changed, making them more and more reliant on DLC, in-game purchases, or high sales volumes to make up the cost. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to pay more for a game than we do, and I don’t really mind paying yearly for updates to games like Destiny 2. After all, that’s a whole year’s worth of new content for another sixty or one hundred bucks or whatever. It’s pretty easy to justify paying that much when you consider that people pay ten to twenty dollars for a two to three hour movie. I get way more out of a video game that I’d get out of three or four movies (or two movies if you buy snacks).
Anyway, this went pretty far from my original point of digital ownership being the primary means of owning media these days. What really started this whole thing was the idea that anything we do on the internet, any digital media, would be available indefinitely. All of that is contingent on platforms being maintained and I think we all know that the current environment means that companies will start tossing shit aside the instant it becomes more profitable to do that than to maintain the platforms they’re running. I’ll be genuinely surprised if there’s anything but personal data downloads left of twitter by 2050. I wouldn’t be surprised it if was all gone by the year 2030, too. I know I sound old-fashioned and like a bit of a conspiracy theorist, but try to make sure you’ve got local copies of all your digital media, that you have the tools required to shift it from one form to another, and that you’re prepared to lose access to things you’ve been told would last forever because they’re digital. People said the same thing about books once and look at what happened to the Library of Alexandria. Nothing lasts forever.