Wednesday, June 29, 2011

From Goods to Services: Why Digital Distribution Bothers Me

I can still remember the very first piece of computer software I bought with my own money. It was Sierra On Line's VGA Remake of Quest For Glory 1, a sweet package that came in several 5 1/4th inch, 360k floppy disks, complete with its box, 2 manuals, and a game book that explained the game's world, acting as its "Bible" of sorts. It was quite the experience: opening the box was as much an adventure as playing the game itself, thanks to all the knick knacks and doodads that came with it.

But also with that same box came the intangible benefits: namely the bundle of rights one gets when one purchases a good or product. Jus utendi, jus abutendi, jus disponendi, possidendi, and the rest. Back then I was twelve, and did not really realize how important these property rights were, and how no one else but I, the rightful purchaser of the software, had them.

Nowadays, digital distribution is rewriting the rules so that software is no longer seen as goods, like cars or VCRs, but as a services, like electricity. And there lies my problem: I'm not sure I'm ready to give up my fundamental property rights as of yet. I don't like the idea that I cannot sell a piece of 2nd-hand software I no longer like, thanks to DRM. That's like being unable to sell an old, but still usable car I bought with my own money. I used to have the right to dispose of, nay, resell property as I see fit.

I also don't like the idea that I can't transfer lawfully bought software from one of my PCs to another of my PCs--the same way I'd raise hell if I discovered my VCR refused to work with any TV other than my old one. Last I checked I had the right to use my property any way I wish, the same way I can hook up my VCR to any TV with an RCA Jack. Even worse is software that has limits to the number of times it can be installed. That's like having a VCR that can only be connected and disconnected from the same TV a handful of times.

I fear that other classes of software aside from games will follow suit, from on-line smut to cellphone apps. Eventually, we might see entire OSes and Business Software sold this way. And again, sellers justify it under the paradigm that the buyer is not purchasing goods, but services, taking these transactions away from the protected realm of property and sales law and into the realm of contract law.

I have nothing against digital distribution or DRM: it's the wave of the future. I have nothing against the service paradigm per se. I will concede that software piracy has made this paradigm shift inevitable. I just want to be protected by the same bundle of rights I'd have had I bought a car and not Spore. In a world where software is inevitably cracked, where phones are jail broken, and where illegal downloads show no signs of stopping, it's a very bad idea to punish your paying customers by limiting their rights to their software, while their pirating counterparts suffer no such limitations.

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