The Cloud Giveth and the Cloud Taketh Away: Problems with Owning Virtual Goods

Having all our stuff stored in the “cloud” seems like a great convenience. We can access our movies and sounds via iTunes Match or Amazon’s Cloud Player. While I always download songs when I buy them, it is nice to be able to access them even when I’m not at home on my Mac that holds my iTunes library, so I appreciate these new capabilities. But there is a downside – you don’t control “your items” in the cloud.

The particular instance I am writing about is from the Amazon Cloud Player, but the same problem can and will arise with any cloud provider.

I buy lots of the 99 greatest song compilations when the go on sale on Amazon for $.99, so I’ve amassed a nice collection of classical music. And, as I said above, I always download the songs as soon as I buy them. This is a good thing, because when I looked at the Amazon Cloud Player yesterday, many of those 99 song collections are now closer to 80 or 85 songs. Yes, indeed, there are songs missing from the cloud versions of my albums. How is that possible? Perhaps a publisher decided to pull the songs or something, but the point is, we don’t own our data in the cloud and it can be taken away from us at the whims of the publisher.

Note: I can’t imagine Amazon would be responsible for removing the songs without some pressure from the publisher, because they need to make customers happy, and this clearly does the opposite. Publishers, on the other hand, are in the business of preventing customers (read: annoying likely pirates) from doing anything with anything, as far as I can tell.

The difference here is with virtual goods vs. real goods. Amazon and others can take away songs or movies (try to find Cowboys and Aliens streaming on Amazon or iTunes. Nope, it’s gone), but they can’t take physical goods from you. Steam, for example, can prevent you from playing a game you bought if you just have a Steam client logged in on another computer. Remember Amazon’s Orwell book fiasco? That doesn’t happen with physical books, CDs, DVDs, Blu-Rays, game discs, etc.

So we have a major disadvantage when paying real money for these virtual goods, in that their availability can be limited in the future without us having any say. We do this because of convenience of the network-based delivery of these items. For the most part, we pay the same price as we do for the physical thing, too, so we’re making bad choices and the publishers are making way more money because they don’t even need to ship a product.

And it is getting worse. How many games on physical disc now require you to register via Steam or Origin or their own web service, which then limits your rights to play the game where and when you want? Almost everything I’ve bought recently for PC is that way. The consoles are still mostly free of that oppression, but it is coming, so publishers can stop the used game market, since they don’t get any money from that.

So what do we do? First, we need to beware of virtual goods and be aware of their limitations. Second, perhaps we should push for more rights for consumers when it comes to virtual goods licenses. Transfer of licenses, as you can do with real property would be a start. Demands that services like Steam should be able to prevent simultaneous use of a single game while allowing different purchased games be played on different machines under the same account. We should get our rights back, rather than being treated like criminals by these publishers and virtual goods providers.

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