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So … who ‘owns’ your digital content exactly?

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It’s long been held as a given in the digital/music industry that the ‘Rock Band’ franchise – those console video games which allowed users to play along to famous hits on a plastic guitar – has jumped the shark. Actually, that’s being generous: it’s jumped several sharks. Using a NASA-built prototype device which was designed with the sole purpose of broadening the horizons of the shark-jumping experience.

If you want concrete proof of this, check out the announcement from video game overlords EA, who have decided to completely shut down the iPhone version of their Rock Band vehicle. That’s right – if you purchased the game, it’s no longer playable. Understandably there’s been a great degree of backlash against this decision, and on the surface it seems inherently justified – if a user has paid for an app, shouldn’t it be theirs forever? By all means the company can stop supporting it with updates and the like, but just imagine if one day Rovio decided that you weren’t allowed to play Angry Birds ever again. That’s unfair. Right?

With Rock Band, however, things run much deeper than that – and carry over questions that affect the digital music industry in general. Users of Rock Band didn’t just pay for the app, you see (although they shelled out five dollars, which isn’t exactly chump change) – they also paid 99 cents/69p for each and every song they used, via an in-app store. It’s theoretically possible that someone could have sunk hundreds of dollars into Rock Band content. And now they’ll never have access to it again.

This raises an issue: just how does the concept of ‘ownership’ translate into a digital world? Things were so simple twenty years ago – you had a shelf full of CDs, and you’d only lose them if you left your front door unlocked or lent them to particularly unscrupulous friends.

Nowadays most of our music is either downloaded or (increasingly) broadcast from the cloud. Now – let’s take a look at iTunes as a good example. If you find that your hard drive has gone kaput, you can easily log into your account and download all your previous purchases all over again. Imagine, one terrible day, you lost all your iTunes library. Annoying, but you can always just grab them all again – it’s just a matter of inconvenience. Now … what if – this same terrible day – Apple went bankrupt and had to shut down? All their services vanished – and before you’d had the chance to get your music. It’s gone. Forever. All the stuff you paid for. Where do you stand? Where are your consumer rights?

This is apocalyptic hyperbole on a Michael Bay level, of course. Apple won’t be shutting down anytime soon. But what if you signed up to a similar, lesser-known service, and the same thing happened? Of course, there are different gradients to the argument here. If a company went bust, then that’s a shame, but no-one is theoretically in the wrong – we all take a certain level of risk in our consumer investments, that’s the way it works in a free-market society.

But the situation with EA? It’s a tricky one. One glance at the Twitter feed indicates customers are none too happy. And why would they be? This isn’t a company shutting down or something similarly upsetting – it’s a deliberate decision to stop customers from accessing content they’ve paid for.

What do you guys think? Legally and logistically … how can the industry deal with this issue?

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