Erika Solis is a Ph.D. student studying Internet law and policy at the Pennsylvania State University.
What does it mean to lose access to content you “own?” For people like Brianna Wu, it means being unable to listen to an audiobook she’s owned for years. She purchased a number of books through Audible with the impression that she owned them and was able to download them for offline listening. She’s listened to the books multiple times since she bought them, but after finding she couldn’t access them at all, she took to Twitter to vent, finding others in similar situations. Audible notes this may happen when new versions of the same title are available on its platform, framing it as an accident in its system, but other companies are intentionally restricting previously purchased content for several reasons. Especially when it’s incredibly easy to remove titles from collections with the press of a button.
In early July, video game developer Ubisoft announced it would decommission paid downloadable content (DLC) and multiplayer online services for many of its video games starting September 1st. Initially, news outlets reported that several games would be unavailable if purchased on a PC. However, the company has since clarified that it is only removing access to the DLC and online capabilities, not the game itself. Some games with offline capabilities, such as Assassin’s Creed: Liberation and Driver: San Francisco, will still remain playable for consumers who have purchased and downloaded the game. Games like Space Junkies, though, will be completely unplayable and inaccessible, creating disruption with the online community. The date has since been moved to October 1st in an attempt to “reduce disruption,” and make minor adjustments to its plan of action.
Many of Ubisoft’s games were not free-to-play; consumers purchased the game through Steam, a video game digital distribution service. This service allows players to download and play a game offline. However, it becomes complicated when considering that Ubisoft is restricting access to DLC, which includes additional features (typically paid) that were not included in the first iteration of the game. It’s uncommon for DLC to work only with Internet access, particularly when the game is fully playable offline.
What are the broader implications of Ubisoft’s actions? It’s part of a continuing trend of platforms and publishers taking content off online services, even after consumers purchase it at full price. This phenomenon is not limited to video game platforms; it is also occurring on streaming services. In 2020, a class action lawsuit was filed against Amazon for deceptive practices. The suit alleged that consumers would purchase movies, believing they owned the content, but that access could still be revoked at any time at Amazon’s discretion. In other words, consumers never truly own it despite paying for what they believed was unlimited access to a media asset – at least not while platforms are hosting it.
A more complex situation revolves around Playstation, which previously maintained a digital storefront for consumers to purchase films. Over 300 titles from film distributor STUDIOCANAL will no longer be accessible in Germany and Austria, despite an initial promise to consumers who did “own” the content that they would retain access. In both cases, the license agreement between STUDIOCANAL and Playstation was not renewed, and thus, the content was removed accordingly.
Currently, there are no policies against this practice, and it’s not quite as simple as creating a blanket ban on removing purchased digital content. This is because all digital media platforms have different functions and usability provisions for their consumers. Some platforms only allow exclusive access, even after purchase. Others are more generous, allowing consumers to download the product itself and keep it for some form of offline usage. In between lies a particularly problematic option: a platform that claims you “own” the content and have at least partial access offline. If bought from platforms like Amazon or Steam, it’s significantly easier for them to strip access to the content, even under these conditions.
It’s unfair for consumers to spend money on digital items when they retain no true form of ownership. If companies decide to take down content, like Ubisoft, there are no other options for consumers that wouldn’t cost more money. Content is now permanently at risk of removal so long as it is a digital-based purchase, and at the moment, there is nothing stopping companies from doing so.
When regulatory aspects are brought into play for video game companies, particularly involvement from the Federal Trade Commission, it’s often centered around violent video games or children’s protections. However, there is little fanfare around deception itself. Section 5 of the FTC Act bans “unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce,” based on a 1983 Policy Statement. When it comes to content, deceptive practices are often found in advertising. There is value in considering the regulation of video game publishers and developers under this umbrella when they promote a product, make certain promises about its usage, and go back on their word.
It can be difficult for a consumer to know if the promises are realistic or followed. In some cases, we cannot expect a company to know the ins and outs of its own promises in the long term. This does not change the risk of deception; consumers will still lose access to their products. A concerning issue is whether or not this could be intentional or unintentional deception. Do the companies release a product knowing they may revoke offline access? Partially, yes. Ubisoft noted that as their technology ages, they wouldn’t refresh the games in new formats.
Until we see a law that helps prevent deception related to the permanence of digital product purchases, there are steps consumers can take to try and understand the rights companies do not address. For example, one can read the policies to see if there is a set time or how much ownership one retains over the product. While these policies can be tedious to read and hard to understand at times, it’s still a way to see whether you will really own what you purchase. Another solution is to see if a product is available on more than one platform and research which platform is most likely to revoke access, although there is no guarantee that a company won’t change its stance.
The only solution that allows full unrevoked ownership is opting to purchase a physical copy of the product. However, it’s not a solution that can apply to all, nor does it get to the root of the problem. In this day and age, there is no effective way to consume all of the available media one might want without coming across at least one streaming or gaming platform that restricts it to online-only capabilities. Likewise, there’s no guarantee the status of the content won’t change, and that, unfortunately, is a part of what amounts to deception. Situations can drastically change without notification, and there may be little to no accountability unless there is an outcry.
These phenomena may become more problematic as objects become embedded with online capabilities or run on subscription-based business models for features in products they already own. The FTC is looking to improve its guidance on digital deception, which could greatly expand into how certain products are advertised and strengthen guidelines. Still, only time will tell if this will expand into companies’ practices of selling a product and revoking access with little notification. Go enjoy Space Junkies while you still can.
Erika Solis is a Ph.D. student studying Internet law and policy at the Pennsylvania State University. Their research focuses on the regulations and deceptive practices of children’s media and the video game industry. Erika holds a B.A. in advertising and M.A. in strategic communication from Rowan University.