Xbox One: 2nd-Hand ignores the physical reality

The Xbox One launch generated lots of excitement online this week, but not all of it was positive enthusiasm. The most prominent point of contention would have to be Microsoft’s stance — such as it is — on games ownership, whether you’re selling on your games or just loaning them to a friend. I’m not surprised at the reaction, but I am concerned by the underlying end point.
See also:
Will the Xbox One be… The One?
Xbox One: Where’s my pizza?
Now, I’ve got to say that Microsoft’s prevarication and mixed messages here haven’t really helped much, given that various representatives have made it seem as though you might either be able to sell games or loan them, or not, perhaps at retail, maybe only online, with fees varying from affordable to absolutely identical to retail price.
I strongly suspect that this is the case because not even Microsoft knows. It’ll be scrambling to sort out the final details with all interested parties, because it most certainly doesn’t want to annoy game publishers — otherwise there’ll be no games — or for the moment, game retailers, because then it runs the risk of consoles not being stocked by them… which was what happened, more or less, with the PSP Go and its all-digital platform.
Still, the Internet was up in arms over whether or not you’d be able to trade in unwanted Xbox One games, or loan them to your friends, or whatnot. I don’t think all of this has been finalised, but for the sake of argument, let’s say that is has, and your worst fears have been realised. Some have seen this as a brave new frontier, others have cried out that they’ll never buy another Microsoft product as long as they live.
The thing is, if this was a purely digital play — as it is with XBLA and Games On Demand — I doubt we’d see the same furore. There’s not much in the way of ownership expectation when it comes to digital goods, because that’s the way that market has been built up. You own licences, not individual goods, which is why (for the most part) if you take a device chock full of digital goods around to a friend’s place, you can’t loan them individual titles, just leave the device there. There’s nothing to loan, just a collection of bits.
That’s still what software will be — and always what it’s been — in one sense for any software platform, including the Xbox One. A collection of bits. It’s all just ones and zeroes and always has been, whether the format was tape, floppy, cartridge, DVD or Blu-Ray.
Where it gets much murkier in my opinion is that it blurs the line between physical and digital goods in an entirely new way. Right now, using digital services, if I buy a movie through iTunes, an eBook through Amazon or a game through XBLA, Steam or PSN, I can enjoy its content, but I can’t then sell it on unless I sell the entire device and account that goes with it — and even then, there may be issues relating to the terms and conditions of the service.
Whereas if I buy a book, CD or DVD, I have a physical object. The expectation and the law says that I can do with it as I like. I can enjoy its content, or build a log fort out of it, or loan it to a friend, or sell it on for whatever price I can get for it. I pay a price, I get a physical object and the associated ownership rights that go with it.
Yes, I know, software licences often say different, but again that’s a not-entirely-enshrined-in-law principle. There have (to the best of my knowledge, not a lawyer, blah, blah) been some simple test cases around transferability and EULAs, but there’s plenty in those documents that remain untested.
For what it’s worth, The Checkout had a nice piece on those kinds of contracts last night that I’d embed here, but for whatever reason, I can’t. It’s the Online Terms And Conditions clip linked here, and many of the same things should apply to the contract within a software box… if you had the stomach and funds to fight them. Most people have better things to do with their money and time.
Digital delivery is a market that’s exploded outwards in recent years, and it’s one that’s shifted away from the concept of ownership in all sorts of ways. Services like Netflix and Spotify are often held up as being “preferable” for many consumers, and I suspect that’s more to do with a simple bottom line. It’s not selection, because they’ve actually got too much of that. You’re never going to listen to or watch everything they’ve got, and nobody would have that inclination. No, what sells those services, and the services that mirrored the more general ownership concept that came before such as iTunes, is price. The overall price is attractive, even though you’re only renting the content.
This is the real line that Microsoft’s got to tread carefully around. I’ve no objection to paying a fair price for digital goods, but I’m notably reluctant if the price is the same as those of a physical product. Not so much to do with the costs of production, mind you. I recognise that while physical production has a cost — often a small per-unit one once you spread it over the potentially millions of discs you’re pressing or pages you’re printing — I’m more concerned there with the rights that I get once I own a physical product. I can make the aforementioned fort out of them if I so wish, and if they crash down onto the fish tank and become pulp, that’s my fault and my problem, but equally if I grow bored with them, I can sell them on because there’s no barrier to somebody else using them.
Whereas with digital goods I’m far more likely to be enthused if the price is lower to reflect the lower ownership stake I’m actually getting. It’s why I was excited earlier in the week about Robert Llewellyn’s Kindle release of The Man In The Rubber Mask.
Not just because it’s a good read — although it is — but because it was priced at $3.99. That’s coffee money, rather than the $20+ that a physical book typically goes for.
Some eBooks, CDs, Movies and Games still go for that kind of “full” retail price, and I reckon as long as physical media still exists as an alternative, it’s a dud choice for all of us as consumers to buy the more limited digital variant. But if Microsoft’s Xbox One plan to make loans expensive (as well as a rather viral distribution mechanism) and second-hand prices negligible goes ahead, we could well be paying retail price for the kinds of rights associated with digital goods.

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