I wrote an article recently commenting on the fact that most video game publishers – with the qualified exception of Nintendo – have increasingly favored distributing digital video games over physical media. This trend exists outside of games, and is arguably more pronounced in the areas of movies and television (streaming) and books (e-books and audio books). On the surface, digital media provides some benefits to consumers in that purchases can be enjoyed instantly and digital media does not take up physical space. However, there is a dark side to the digital-first frenzy. Many digital products are only accessible through a specific service or platform. What happens when the service decides to revoke access to previously purchased digital media or the platform ceases to exist? Themere specter of either event occurring turns customers who purchase digital media into unwitting renters.

Public domain image of a rent sign with wings from Openclipart.
Public Domain image from Openclipart.

Sony provided a stark example of the ability of digital media stores to turn buyers into renters. The PlayStation Store, which primarily deals in video games for Sony’s flagship game consoles, also dealt in movies. I use dealt in the past tense because Sony ceased offering movie purchases and rentals through the PlayStation store on August 31, 2021. Note that Sony distinguished between purchases and rentals – this point proved to be significant insofar as it was ultimately insignificant. Sony promised customers who had purchased digital movies through the PlayStation store that their movies would remain available after August 31, 2021. That promise, however, had a limited shelf life for customers from Germany and Austria.

Sony notified Austrian and German customers that any movies which they had previously purchased that had been published by Studio Canal would no longer be accessible after August 31, 2022. At the time of the announcement, Sony made no mention of refunds or other forms of recompense for customers who had purchased one of the many movies on its German and Austrian stores licensed by Studio Canal. The PlayStation store made these movies available for purchase and rental, but purchase ultimately meant long-term rental with an end date at the sole discretion of Sony.

While the PlayStation Store is a single case, Mr. Tim Litchfield of PC Gamer noted that it sets an ominous precedent for other digital libraries:

[D]espite the edge case of locale and storefront, it’s an unsettling precedent. I have far too many dollars and hours invested in my Steam library to not be alarmed at evidence of the potential fragility and instability of digital storefronts…

Steam is the largest digital game distributor. While Steam has largely acted in good faith and appears to be stable, with a company behind it that has a far greater commitment to game distribution than Sony ever had to selling movies through the PlayStation Store, Mr. Litchfield’s concerns are over the target. Most games on Steam require Steam to launch. This, without more, effectively turns most Steam purchases into indefinite rentals – and so long as a digital product is a rental, the end-user is always liable to lose his or her purchase.

I explained the potential pitfalls in an article about DRM on Steam:

My issue with Steam’s DRM protection is one of software ownership. So long as a digital game is dependent on a Steam account to launch, it is difficult to say that one owns his or her game. Losing a Steam account means losing access to an entire game library with no recourse. While Steam is clearly in no danger of running out of steam (pun intended) for the foreseeable future, having digital games cannot launch without Steam effectively reduces customers who purchase those games to renters.

However, while Steam shares the same fundamental issue that many other digital stores have, it also sells products that provide a better way forward for digital media. I explained in a March 2022 article that many games on Steam are clandestinely DRM-free, meaning that the games can be launched locally without any dependency on the Steam platform.

While the overwhelming majority of games on Steam are bound to a third-party launcher (whether Steam’s or another’s), that there is a large number of DRM-free games on Steam is encouraging.

I recently reviewed ACE Academy, a visual novel that I purchased on Steam. Because ACE Academy is one of Steam’s DRM-free games, I was able to copy the game files and launcher outside of Steam and run it without having Steam active. In practical terms, this has three benefits:

  • Were I to ever lose access to my Steam account, I could run ACE Academy so long as I had copied the game files locally.
  • Were Steam to ever remove ACE Academy from my library in the same way that Sony removed previously-purchased movies from the libraries of certain customers in Germany and Austria, I would be able to play it so long as I had copied the game files locally and kept a backup.
  • Even if I never run ACE Academy outside of Steam, the mere fact that it can run locally empowers me to create a backup copy, giving me a meaningful claim to ownership of my purchase.

ACE Academy is one example of a healthy way of selling digital media. Digital media handled correctly gives the purchaser ownership over his or her purchase. This entails not tying the purchase to a specific online account, making it possible to launch the purchase without a specific platform, and giving the end-user the ability to back up his or her purchase. To be sure, Steam is not the best store in this regard – both for the fact that the vast majority of its games are dependent on its proprietary launcher and also because it does not allow users to see the DRM status and/or launcher requirements for games in its store, but it is an interesting case in that its store highlights the positives and negatives of digital media stores.

The PlayStation Store movie debacle serves as a stark reminder that many digital purchases are little more than indefinite rentals. Some rentals may be longer term and more stable than others, but so long as the media is tied to a specific account or requires a specific launcher, the end-purchaser does not meaningfully own his or her purchase.

Digital storefronts encourage lazy consumer behavior. One effect of this is to create a society of digital renters instead of digital owners. Limiting the instant inquiry to the digital ownership issue, the lesson of the PlayStation Store movie debacle in Germany and Austria is that consumers should be maximally discerning. If one wants to purchase a digital product – let us use a movie for this example – that is only available as an indefinite rental, he or she should still consider, to the extent practicable, where to purchase the movie from. Some companies treat customers better than others. Different indefinite rentals have different requirements in terms of accounts and launch conditions. Finally, some companies are more invested in particular services and platforms than others.

While abstaining entirely from indefinite rentals is not a practical option for most people (I partake in some indefinite rentals), purchasing digital products that one actually owns should be preferred when there is an option. For example, if a game is available on Steam (with DRM and a Steam launcher runtime requirement) and GOG (all GOG games are DRM-free), GOG should be preferred – both from the perspective of the particular purchaser and also to support an game store with strong digital media distribution ethics. In other cases, physical media may be the best option – such as in the case of console video games or books that one plans to keep and return to.

The digital media marketplace is deeply flawed, but there are options for careful and discerning customers to minimize the risk of losing indefinite rental content while simultaneously building libraries of content that they actually own in their digital homes.