I’ve got a shelf full of books. I love them. I read them. I even use them as a backdrop for my wife’s science videos. And sometimes, I lend them to friends. It’s not complicated, lending out books – you just hand your friend the book. If you’re lucky, your friend brings it back (and you get to share a great conversation). If not, your friend has a book – and you no longer do.
Since the dawn of human civilization, this is how lending worked. You can allow someone to borrow something. You can give someone something you don’t use anymore. You can do whatever you want with things you physically own.
It’s simple, and it’s not something most people want to change. Recent news from the world of video games, however, highlights how this basic thing – lending something to a friend – is becoming complex even if you physically own an object. The idea of ownership is shifting – if not disappearing – as we replace books with eBooks, video game discs with digital downloads and CDs with streaming services.
Is 4 > 1?
It drove gamers nuts. They took to Twitter, they took to comment sections and did just about everything (short of going outside) to complain about Microsoft’s new game lending policy – so much so that Microsoft eventually changed their policy.
What was it? To this day I’m not sure of the specifics (and am also not sure if Microsoft is), but the gist of it is this – if you want to lend someone a video game you physically own, they’ll need to pay Microsoft in order to play. If you want to sell a game you physically own, the buyer will also need to pay Microsoft to actually play it.
I could get into more specifics – how every game is installed to a hard drive, and how games must be tied to an XBox Live account in order to function. I could elaborate on how devices that are offline for 24 hours cannot play any games – online or off. I could discuss how game studios feel they lose money from used game sales – even though that’s a point I dispute.
I could, but that’s not my core point here. Besides, Microsoft has since changed its position. For me it’s not even about money, necessarily. I think the act of lending someone a game, under Microsoft’s new regime, is needlessly complex. Why are there rules? Why do I need to understand them in order to lend my friend a game?
Why can’t I just lend my friend a freaking game? I mean, I paid for it. I’m not playing it right now. Why can’t she play it? Technology is supposed to make our lives easier. This makes it harder.
It’s exactly these thoughts XBox competitor Sony was hinting at in this ‘tutorial’ video, outlining how lending a Playstation 4 game to a friend works:
Hilarious. What’s not mentioned is that Sony, like Microsoft, is increasingly looking to shift game sales from physical disks to digital downloads – and sharing those games is basically not possible.
Lending Out eBooks
This goes well beyond video games. Back to my bookshelf – its collection isn’t growing like it used to. One reason for this is the allure of eBooks. Reading George R.R. Martin’s ‘A Song Of Ice And Fire’ is much easier electronically, if only because I don’t need to lug around its massive volumes.
There’s a problem, however – I cannot lend my now-read books to a friend. Short of physically handing a friend my ereader – which I won’t do – or giving her my Kobo password – which is illegal – there’s not a great way for me to share the battle for Westeros with anyone else.
Of course, Kindle users can lend books to each other. Sometimes. Some publishers block this feature – a power they very much don’t have with paper books.
But my ereader is a Kobo, and Kobo does not currently offer such a service. And even if they did, relatively few people in my adopted country (USA) own Kobo devices, and it will likely never be possible to loan a Kobo book to a Kindle user (unless they’re willing to read using only the smartphone app).
Not that I blame Kobo or Amazon for this situation – they can’t be expected to help their competitors by offering a compatible sharing service. But the fact that they don’t means lending an ebook to a friend is much more complex than a paper book. That our idea of ownership is changing.
The End Of Ownership?
When you buy an eBook, depending on the service, you’re not purchasing the book itself: you’re purchasing the right to read the book on a limited number of devices. Which devices these are, and anything else you can do with the book, is entirely up to the eBook platform (and it could change at any time).
This changes our understanding of ownership, but in other parts of the digital media landscape ownership is disappearing outright. Netflix users, for example, understand that their access to TV shows and movies does not imply any kind of ownership. If they stop paying Netflix – or Netflix stops paying a content creator – the right to watch a particular show can disappear completely.
Spotify users similarly pay a monthly fee for access, but know they don’t own the content they stream.
It’s not completely a bad thing – users of such services have access to far more content than their subscription fees could possibly buy. It is a shift, however – and one we should all be mindful of.
The Lesson Of Sony
So: do I have a point? Back to video games. Sony scored massive PR points with its policy on lending, which is odd – all they did was not restrict an existing freedom. They noticed that consumers didn’t like Microsoft’s new policies, and made sure not to adapt them – not exactly heroic.
It does, however, show us that if one company restricts something – and enough people are unhappy – another company could well step in. The fact that Microsoft eventually switched positions only adds to this point: competition goes a long way.
Of course, that’s up to us. If people complain about things like this, but buy flawed devices anyway, things won’t get much simpler. What do you think?