Sony has reminded us twice in less than a week of the brittle nature of digital “ownership,” and both times they have something to do with PlayStation.
Sony announced this week that as of December 31, 2023, subscribers will no longer be able to watch Discovery content they had already paid for and that the content would be deleted from their collections due to “arrangements” about content licensing. The consequence is a lengthy list of shows that, due to corporate agreements, will abruptly end. It’s not uncommon for shows to vanish from streaming services, but in this instance, viewers are losing access to episodes they purchased so they could watch them anytime they wanted.
Subsequently, a large number of customers had their PlayStation Network accounts abruptly banned on Monday. This meant that not only were they unable to access cloud streaming services or play multiplayer games, but they were also unable to access digitally purchased games from Sony’s PlayStation store. Without any fault of their own, impacted consumers who might have spent years assembling a substantial digital library found themselves unexpectedly without access to content they had purchased. Those who were mistakenly banned appear to have had their account access restored by Sony, but the corporation hasn’t provided an explanation or indicated how it might avoid future occurrences of such unforeseen bans. (Sony hasn’t responded to our repeated demands for an explanation.)
The transience of digital “ownership” is not a recent problem. Although purchasing a physical copy of a game from a retail store may be more difficult than downloading and accessing digital content, you are relying on the platform owners to maintain their digital storefronts, the content on those storefronts, and their account systems in order for your access to remain functional.
The recent shutdown of Nintendo’s 3DS and Wii U eShops served as a sobering reminder that businesses control the terms and conditions under which digital material can be purchased. Although you may still play games you’ve bought on the Wii U and 3DS again, it seems likely that Nintendo will eventually stop allowing you to do so. (After all, it has already planned to stop providing online services for such platforms.) And do you recall when Google closed Stadia?
But because these latest PlayStation instances are abrupt and feel unfair, they are even more frustrating. Sony is allowing customers to view their paid series for the final time before removing them from their library completely in a few weeks with Discovery content. Also, Sony isn’t providing a method for you to move your previous purchases to another retailer or any reimbursement for the games you’ve already purchased. Although most of the PlayStation account suspensions were resolved within a few hours, the incident happened quickly and unexpectedly, and Sony hasn’t released any explanations for why players should still have faith in the platform.
For years, I’ve been fully committed to digital material. I prefer being able to flip between games and films without getting up from the couch, and I dislike the clutter that comes with physical packaging. However, I’m really considering returning to purchasing CDs and cartridges after witnessing an increasing number of corporations remove “purchased” digital content, thereby turning the stuff I buy digitally into long-term rentals.