The Magical Illusion of Property Ownership by Rich Leahy

    Society is hurtling through a digital age, each day see’s new advances in technology. This article examines the diverse nature of property ownership and its paradoxical behaviour in relation to law and property.  The digital landscape is riddled with inconsistencies and narrowing lines between consumer content and intellectual property. With the large corporations often occupying control over social media, gaming and technology, the consumer is left wondering where they stand legally. Because of this complicated and problematic position, we as the consumer are left questioning the legal, economic and social agreements we make digitally. Through these agreements corporations are enchanting users with the notion of possession, through the use of end-user license agreements (EULA’s) and terms of service (TOS) contracts. These legal agreements re-enforce the ability to survey the user and sell commodities. Furthermore, these agreements are often contradictions of our individual beliefs and often entrap users.

    Our relationship to property is entangled with complications and legal formalities, however it is often inconsistent.  Property refers to the exclusive ownership we have over an object. This is within relation to the rights and duties we have as citizens over the ‘object’. The rights and duties are legally bound laws protected by legal foundations. This creates a socially constructed concept of what is mine and what is not. We define ‘objects’ by their usefulness; to either make money or to be ‘put-to-use’ after purchase. Without question, our lives are controlled by the ability to obtain ‘things’ that we desire and want to use. At this point, humanity is no longer an individual, but an object, and in doing so alienate themselves by becoming a commodity. Essentially, we re-enforce large corporation’s ownership of property as we live to serve property relations of those who ‘own’ it. We are then left with the problem - should we, as humans, live solely to obtain property? Should we be serving the corporate entities who have ownership of the property? Without question, the world operates on a capitalist mode of production, and our relationship with all property and each other reflects this. With recent campaigns such as #PS4NoDRM - the scandal surrounding the application of Digital Rights Management (DRM) - the use of day one downloadable content, in-app purchases and the closure of certain servers by EA has raised an interesting question when it comes to property ownership. It is this intimate relationship we have with the capitalist market that makes it almost impossible for us as humans to imagine our existence beyond what we are conditioned to believe. As gaming exists in this paradigm it follows the rules and social constructions of the world. 

    The majority of you reading this will have purchased a game, or technology software at some point in time. Regardless of how that purchase was made; either buying a physical disc or ordering online. We would now consider this as our property. However, this sense of ownership is based on false pretence. Essentially, we have purchased the right to play the game. For example, if we examine the sports genre, the games often have a multiplayer element that allows us to play with Counter Strike - A community game, supported and created by the community.our friends online. However year on year, EA have been shutting down old servers , which raises the question, "Do we actually own the entire game, or are we renting it until the publisher decides we've had enough time with it?" Therefore, our control over our gaming purchase is an illusion. When we purchase a game, we are greeted with the EULA and TOS, accepting these agreements become an instinctive reaction which is often forced upon the gamer.  Many games will not allow you to even proceed without first accepting some form of agreement to play the game. Thus, making the gamer accept the corporation’s rules, further giving power to those who own property. The use of these EULA and TOS are in place to protect the ‘intellectual property’ of the game developers. However, it is this notion of intellectual property that causes certain problems. Arguably, intellectual property is always a product of society as through social interaction and social acts we are developed. If programmers shared their ideas with society, not only would it benefit society as a whole, it would improve the quality of the programme, in this case a game. The commercialisation of ideas is one that hinders society and doesn’t help move the industry forward. As a gamer and consumer, the sharing of ‘ideas’ should be one that isn’t commercialised but used to improve our experience as a gamer. For example, if we take counterstrike, which was originally developed as a modification for half-life by two fans of the game. It was through looking at the code and sharing ideas that this was made possible. When games have been abandoned as developers have stopped caring, shut down or are not fixing the problems, often a user will provide fixes and mods.  Therefore, if game developers removed corporate greed and were more open with their source codes and ideas, it would benefit society and gamers as a whole. This of course is all idealistic and would never function in today’s capitalist monopoly where money is motivation. The problem with intellectual property does not simply lay with developers protecting their ‘ideas’ but it also affects the gamer. In ‘sandbox’ games such as Minecraft, users are encouraged to get creative and develop their own creations and ideas. However the user’s intellectual property is not theirs to do with as they please, as signing the EULA and TOS they have signed over ownership of their ideas. The same can be said for Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) where users input their own style and creativity with characters. MMORPGs also require user interaction, therefore, the gamer is sharing their experiences, ideas and thoughts and consequently their ‘intellectual property’. Additionally, these sort of games are never complete and are always active depending on user input. With this user interaction the game becomes valuable and MMORPGs do not sell if there is no captivating relationship. By signing the EULA and TOS the gamer controls and maintains ownership of their software. However, it is the large corporations who control the landscape of these ideas by controlling the code, procedures, servers and games. 

    More problems arise when we examine the ever changing ways gamers are able to purchase items. If we examine the market we can see that digital gaming is only increasing. The PC market dominates digital games and is only evident with digital distribution software such as Steam and Origin. Purchasing games on Steam is easy and convenient as well as being affordable. Many users, such as oneself, have ordered and played games using Steam. However, if Valve, the developers and owners of Steam were to suddenly go bankrupt and had to close their servers, the games people bought using their steam account would become invalid. This of course only highlights the issues of property ownership especially when it comes to digital media. Essentially, users have paid for the right to play the game for as long as they’re allowed. This can be highlighted with EA’s handling of the SimCity situation whereby users were required to be online, or they would not be able to play the game for long periods of time. Additionally, in the week the game launched, many users were unable to login due to the sudden pressure on the games servers. However, when users called for a refund on their purchases they were unable to obtain a refund and were told they had to wait for EA to fix the problem. This is a problematic issue when discussing digital property, as there are few laws protecting user’s digital rights. The problem is that the large organisations own the servers, and ultimately it’s up to them to decide when the server has its plug pulled. This only further distances the consumers control over their purchase.  

    The increase in corporations trying to make as much money from their existing products has also expanded in this digital age. The use of Downloadable Content (DLC) has left some gamers overjoyed that they are able to carry on playing their favourite game. However, a problem that many gamers are finding uncomfortable is day-one DLC, which often leaves a sour taste in many gamer’s mouths. The problem remains, why are gamers paying full price for a game that is incomplete? The developers arguably, should be using the time to iron out bugs and glitches that are not always fixed with the alarmingly frequent and mandatory day one patch. These DLC packs, only cause more anger and scepticism as to whether they have been intentionally removed from the game to make more money. This anger is reinforced, when game developers such as Capcom pre-load game Disc’s with DLC. Their reasons they argued, was to ‘make it more convenient for the gamer’, however, DLC is a choice and having the items already on the disc causes concern that gamers are paying for only a portion of the game. Another incident that has occurred, is with Assassins creed, where a ‘sequence’ of the protagonists memory was missed from the game but graciously made available to download, at a cost of course. 

    However, the digital market has delivered services such as PS Now and EA Access. These financial models are built on the idea of paying for a service to play old games. I am no business guru and only offer my humble opinion, but I observe these rental services as a way to combat the physical pre-owned market.

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By allowing gamers to access a plethora of games without leaving their home, offers great convenience for the consumer. The price model of EA Access is also a benefit as the yearly subscription costs less than some deals on pre-owned games. Therefore, the gamer is happy as they have a large selection of games to play. Additionally, the companies are happy as they are making money that they usually wouldn't on games that dominate pre-owned markets.  However, it is hard to look at this model of gaming and not think this is how gaming always has been. We pay £45 for a new game, however, as time goes by, we are limited to playing some features. Many multiplayer features and online capabilities are often removed by the publisher. Therefore, we are theoretically renting the game for a long period of time. Nonetheless, if there is no one using these online features, the argument could be made that these servers should be switched off to help improve other game servers. With the successful launch of EA Access however, these servers could remain available for longer as there is now a demand to keep supporting these games and making them available to users. This arguably benefits the gaming community as a whole, unless of course EA decides to restrict these servers to EA Access members only. If this were to happen, the questionable nature of gaming ownership would only further support the claim that it is an illusion


Property ownership will be contested and problematic beyond our life time. Also, our relationship to digital media and products will change dramatically. The protection of peoples ‘intellectual property’ is fundamentally built on a capitalist model and whilst money rules the world, it is hard to see any major changing relationship between consumer and developer. The property relations will also fail to change as large corporations control the property and often fund the ideals and beliefs of governments. Digital property has many merits, they are definitely ones that offer convenience and accessibility to the consumer. However, it is hard to ignore the many problems that remain, such as the lack of legal protection for users and the fundamental lack of ownership and security with digital purchases. I believe that gaming is about community, and that the active sharing of ideas and products would only strengthen that experience. Though, due to the nature of our society, we will always buy games. Nevertheless, gamers as consumers, should demand for a better and fairer service. Additionally, gamers should make their voice and dissatisfaction with the products they buy known, to better improve these products in the future.  Ultimately, much work is still needed on improving consumer and developer relationships. As well as strengthening the protection of digital consumer rights and not solely focussing on corporations. The question will remain however, who will win the digital and property ownership war, the large corporations or the consumer. Maybe a better question to ask is - who will suffer the most? 


I hate trophies/achievements that require online. Once they shut down the online servers, they are impossible the achieve. Also hate day 1 DLC, I spent $70 on a new game & then you ask me for more money! This has to stop.
Most forms of digital goods do not adhere to the property ownership model. Consumers are rarely sold ownership. What we are purchasing, regardless of physical or digital media, is a license to use some one else's property in a very specific narrow way. The conflict arises when we pay money and are handed a container. We expect that we now own the container and everything inside. But, that hasn't been true for a long time. Our containers (disks) hold games and a license. We own the container, publishers own the game and we both sort of own the license. As long as the game stays in the same container we can transfer the license to someone else. With all digital we haven't really figured out how to transfer licenses. That was kind of the beauty of MS's official vision for the Xbox one. But, to take advantage of their system you had to give up the freedom of who you could transfer your license to for both physical and digital. Digital property ownership for consumers is certainly an illusion. But it's born mostly out of confusion about the relationship between consumers and content creators.

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