How we are becoming a Goblin Economy

September 8th, 2012 – Culture, Other Articles, Video Games

At the outset, let me say that I am not an expert in any of these things. Also, this is a discussion of ideas, not a search for problems nor solutions.

All right, so J. K. Rowling is notorious (at least to me) for bringing up a lot of controversial topics and then proceeding to ignore them completely. (I’m looking at you House Elf Rights Activists!) One of her most interesting ideas was the goblin opinion on ownership. In the book, it is a small matter that acts primarily as a plot device regarding the sword of Gryffindor. Basically, the goblins want it back because they believe that ownership of any object belongs to its creator.

Now that seems like a pretty weird concept. After all, when I go and buy a coffee, I don’t expect the barista to ask for it back a day later. Or when I go and buy The Sorcerer’s Stone, I don’t expect J. K. Rowling to ask for it back when I die. Or do I? Let’s say I had an e-reader. These days, if I want to give a digital copy of a book to my kids, I have to buy them a separate copy for their own e-reader. The same is true for music, for software, for the instructions to a small crafting project, even to ideas. In the human tongue we call this licensing, and it’s been especially close to home here at the anime club with the recent acquisition of Funimation titles by the Swank Motion Picture group.

You see, when we go out and buy a DVD, even a physical disk, we can’t actually do whatever we want with it. For one thing, I’m sure most people are aware they aren’t supposed to make any reproduction of the disk (although they may be allowed a backup for personal use). But furthermore, you cannot even show a DVD wherever you want. If you want to show a DVD in what is legally referred to as a “public performance”, you need to get permission from the official owners of the work. And public performance is quite broad, not only including showings such as CJAS’s, but even just putting a movie on in the background at a local café.

And don’t get me wrong; there are good reasons for this. After all, we certainly wouldn’t want a movie theater to be able to buy a few copies of a movie and then show it without paying any sort of fee to the creators. Because then either the original reels would be incredibly expensive, or else theaters would be owned directly by film studios! And I can see why if a bar or restaurant drew in customers by playing movies, their creators would want some credit for their part in bringing in those customers. And then there’s the perfectly reasonable argument that if you watch anime for free at your local anime club, why would you then pay to watch it again? These arguments are not without their flaws, but for the sake of objectivity, I think I will leave it at that.

However, there is one more matter worth mentioning. Recently, the European courts ruled that a digitally distributed video game can be sold by its purchaser, so long as they then make it impossible to play the game themselves (such as by deleting the game from their computer). This may not seem like a big deal to those who don’t play video games, but this is the first time that a government entity has recognized the ownership, not just licensing, of digital media. (It should also be pointed out that this ruling takes effect regardless of the original EULA.) In any case, if the EU holds to this ruling, we may see some big changes in the way companies do digital distribution. And not all for the better. My personal prediction is that if this starts getting enforced, Steam sales (which regularly cut game prices by 50-75%) will be gone by next year, for fear that other digital distribution companies will buy large numbers of their discounted games to be re-sold at slightly higher prices.

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