History does like to repeat itself, doesn’t it? The latest example comes from a story that broke about a week ago, when Electronic Arts suddenly removed the ability of gamers in Myanmar, Iran, and a number of other countries to play the EA computer games they had purchased and downloaded via Origins, EA’s online store.
The reason for this cutoff? Electronic Arts had become aware that the affected countries were under international sanction, which made it illegal to do business with their inhabitants. Ironically, in attempting to comply with those sanctions, EA goofed–the sanctions against Myanmar had actually been lifted on October 7, leaving EA hastily scrambling to restore access to customers in Myanmar. But that won’t help customers in the other places that are still under sanction.
This development brings a number of questions with it, such as why it took so long for EA to notice there were places it shouldn’t be selling, and why other digital game stores like Steam and Battlenet apparently don’t have this problem. But it also brings a stark reminder of the time the same thing happened to ebooks.
Early ebook adopters will remember that for the first few years of their life, commercial ebooks could be bought by anyone in any country. However, this was actually a violation of the terms of the publishing contracts for most books, which limited then to sale only in certain countries. In 2009, someone finally noticed this was happening, and not only did foreign customers lose the ability to buy new ebooks, some lost access to the titles they’d already bought. And that’s been the state of affairs ever since. As in so many industries, the logistics of producing physical goods control what your can do with digital ones, too.
A related issue is all the trouble streaming video services have been having restricting availability of their titles on a geographic basis. In January, Netflix announced it was taking a harder line against people using proxy servers to disguise their physical location to access geographically restricted content.
Forbes holds that the incident raises questions about the nature of digital property ownership, but they’re not exactly new questions. They’ve been around just about as long as digital media have been sold–or at least, licensed. If anything, this harks back to that time early on when Amazon deleted from customers’ devices the George Orwell books that had been erroneously republished while still under copyright. Even though Amazon was trying to comply with applicable laws, it still left a lot of people feeling like their property rights had been violated.
The question isn’t really one of DRM in this case, either. Oh, certainly the DRM would prevent people from playing games they purchased without authorization from above, but that’s a price gamers are generally willing to pay these days. And that’s almost entirely a secondary matter to the central question of why EA felt the need to do what it did in the first place.
As with the ebook georestrictions, the central matter of ownership here is a question of law. Arguably, and assuming the laws do apply as EA claims, the citizens of those embargoed countries shouldn’t have been able to buy the computer games to begin with, and I would hope EA could work out some way to refund those customers in countries that are still under sanction.
But the larger matter is that buying digital property simply doesn’t work the same way buying real property does. With real property, it’s relatively simple not to do business with embargoed countries. You work out whether the person you’re talking to is from one of them, or the shipping address is in one of them, and if not, NO SALE. But the Internet was intentionally made to be global from the outset, and any geographic restrictions slapped on down the road are clumsy retrofits by nature. Unless you specifically filter out IP ranges from the beginning, you’re selling to everyone, and even the filters aren’t necessarily completely reliable. Information might want to be both free and expensive, but it certainly prefers to be free of the bounds of terrestrial geography.
And if those countries are under sanction, and it’s illegal for American companies to do business with them, I can’t exactly fault EA for trying to comply with the law. But why did it suddenly feel the need to start enforcing geographic restrictions against embargoed countries now–and specifically one that stopped being embargoed weeks before they implemented it? Did someone from the government abruptly contact them with a list a few months ago, it took them this long to implement it, and no one ever told them (and they didn’t check to see) that one of the countries had since fallen off the list? Is it just that EA was the first company to implement the sanctions properly and others will soon follow suit?
As far as I know, countries under sanction are usually under sanction for a reason. If the citizens of those countries want access to goods they’re sanctioned against buying, be they physical or digital, it’s up to them to force their governments to change the behaviors that led to the sanction in the first place. So, it’s hard for me to find it a bad thing for American companies to be forced to toe the line when it comes to obeying those sanctions. (Though they should, of course, make sure that the countries in question are still under sanction before they hit the “apply” button.)
At the same time, I can’t help being happy every time people get a digital-ownership-rights wakeup call. Because, sanctions aside, the question of digital property ownership, including the “ownership” of our ebooks, is a contentious and encumbered one, and it may take some concerted action on many people’s parts to force a change in the way things are now. (I’ll be discussing that in my next piece, covering a recent Cory Doctorow op-ed in Locus.) So, the more reasons people have to get interested in forcing such a change, the better.
With respect to ownership of digital vs physical books, this is very different from Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. where possession was 8/10 of the law. It is difficult or impossible to possess many digital books.