So You Think You Own The Books and Games You Paid For? [Opinion]

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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.

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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.

(Check out reasons to buy the PS4 or reasons to buy the XBox One if you want to debate relative merits – that’s not my purpose here).

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?

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Comments (22)
  • Leah

    I understand where companies are coming from. Physical copies are harder to duplicate, but with digital copies essentially one person buys the item and then can copy it infinite number of times. How many lost sales would that be? Some would never have been a sale, but some would have. With a physical copy I lend it to you I don’t have it in my possession. I share an ebook or an mp3 with you and we can both possess it at the same time.

    But, I also believe that when you own something you should be allowed to share it. If I purchase an ebook I should be allowed to share it like I do a physical book. I understand if we have two different types of ereaders they are not compatible, but if we have the same we should be able to share.

    I think we should be able to share but perhaps put handicaps on that. You can only share a certain number of times and if the copy you own is one you got from sharing then you can’t share it. Or maybe make it so you can only share one copy at a time. Put a time limit on that sharing (as decided by you or the receiver) and when that limit is hit they cannot access the book anymore and you can share it with someone else (or that same person).

  • SLZ

    I contend this is not a change in definition as much as it is an example easily understood by elements divorced from reality. In the real world we have been dealing with fuzzy ownership for as long as I can remember; look toward real estate, who owns this piece of physical property: even though the name listed on the title is mine, the bank through mortgage, the insurance company through policy and the government through taxation all hold a stake in my property, making me a co-owner of this asset. In the virtual world, along the chain of custody each player tends to assert its rights of ownership to the point that no one actually owns anything (or everyone owns everything). This has been a goal of collectivism since Marx first tied social life to economic life.

  • hildyj

    I am (or was) a bibliophile. I have about 500 linear feet of bookshelves. Decades ago, the price of hardbacks made me start waiting for the paperback to come out. Still, I would buy 5 – 10 books a month. Now I buy zero. I love reading on a tablet but if I pay for something I expect to own it. So I just read the ebooks my local library buys. I don’t own them but I don’t have to pay anything for them either.

    • Justin Pot

      So the idea that you don’t own the books you buy stopped you from buying altogether? There’s a logic there I kind of hope catches on…

  • BiG eViL…….

    i think there are double standards, by saying that you own the right to read the ebook rather than the ebook itself is hilarious, that’s like saying you own the physical pages of the book (paper) but not the content (ink) which is written by the author. thats a ridiculous idea brought upon by the media companies just because things have become digital. this issue is extremely important for public/private libraries, they cannot afford fill their bookshelves with kindle readers if they want to lend books to people, it is just absurd.

    Coming to video games, developers saying that they are losing money because of piracy is baseless, because when you develop a software you have infinite stock of the software, it can be copied over to discs infinite number of times, saying that pirates stole from your infinite inventory and giving it a money value is baseless, this cost incalculable, correct me if i am wrong but i have never seen or heard in news that XYZ developer went bankrupt due to piracy causing losses, the developer makes losses because of buggy and unreliable software (crapware).

  • Jorge

    These issues simply reflect that most people don’t understand what intellectual property is and how it works from a legal standpoint.

    I won’t get into specifics since there’s too much information about it on the Web but, unfortunately, most people are simply not interested in knowing.

    • Justin Pot

      And how interested should people be, when an $8 Netflix subscription gives you access to all the TV and movies you can watch?

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For more details, please read our disclosure.
Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.