Talking tech since 2003

Physical media — a CD, a Blu-ray or a video game — is, most of the time, free. A CD can be played on any CD player. A Blu-ray disc can be played on any Blu-ray player. And a video game can be played on any console it’s compatible with. You don’t have to worry about that disc being tied to that one specific system in your living room, and, should you want to give that item to a friend or sell it to a total stranger, you have that freedom.

Unfortunately, it seems we’re nearing the end of this era — the last few years where disc-based media will exist in our world. And it appears that all of the perks of owning a physical copy of an album, movie or game will disappear, as well. But those savings from manufacturing and distribution, the ones we thought would be passed on to consumers? We’re still waiting for those, and we probably will be for a while.

FIFA 13 digital download in the Xbox Live Marketplace, selling for $59.99. The disc-based version sells on Amazon for $38.11.
FIFA 13 digital download in the Xbox Live Marketplace, selling for $59.99. The disc-based version sells new on Amazon for $38.11.

The freedom afforded by physical media means that many consumers are willing to pay a premium for it. In the case of video games, that means regularly dropping $60 for a newly released title with the knowledge that, should you not like the game, or should you simply grow tired of it one day, you can sell it and perhaps recoup some of that cost. You can even put that used game toward the purchase of a new one because, as a physical item that is not locked down to any one system or person, it has value to others in the world.

A lot of things work in this manner. Have you ever bought a new car before? If so, did you trade in your old one or sell it to someone else? This happens every single day in the world, but rather than try to eliminate the used car industry — “Sorry, the license for this car has already been activated.” — car manufacturers and dealerships have accepted the used car industry as a reality they have to deal with. In many cases, that industry has become quite lucrative for them (look at refurbished vehicles or “100-point inspection” programs).

Now, if a car company someday created an automobile rights management system that locked a car to one single driver, I would expect a very steep discount on the car’s price due to the lost value. In fact, I’m not sure any sane person would pay today’s full price for a car that they could not lend to someone else or sell if they wanted to. Yet that is exactly what many media companies are asking us to do with digital media — keep paying the same price for a product that is nowhere near as useful or as valuable as it was in the past, and is distributed to us at a lower cost.

Take Microsoft, for example. We could talk for days about the Xbox One, but even today, the company sells digital downloads for the Xbox 360 at full price. That’s $60 for a game that cannot be traded, resold or even transferred to the Xbox One once it’s released. The Xbox One plans for digital downloads weren’t all that different, but for discs, Microsoft had actually put an entire system in place so that disc-based games would be tied to one console, and gave publishers the option to block used game sales if they wanted. The price for these games? $60. Long story short: Microsoft wanted gamers to pay full price for a less valuable product. Fortunately, consumers pushed back hard against that move and Microsoft retreated.

A Storm of Swords: $8.99 for the paperback version and $9.99 for the Kindle version.

Even in places where prices came down a bit to reflect the loss of freedom, media companies aren’t very happy about it. E-books typically sell between $10 and $12, which is cheaper than a hardcover yet, many times, more expensive than a paperback. Yet publishers want to charge more, even though a Kindle book I purchase from Amazon can’t be resold or donated to a library. Downloadable movies also sell for less than their DVD or Blu-ray counterparts, but again, the freedom to lend is gone and these items have no resale value.

There isn’t a question that we’re headed toward an all-digital world. The concern remains that, in this transition, we’re going to lose the freedoms that we’ve enjoyed with our media since words were first scrawled onto a surface, but we won’t be getting any kind of substantial discount in return.

As more books become e-books, and as discs stop being pressed for CDs and games, the shelves in our libraries and homes will become bare. We’ll no longer own our media in the way we do today, in that there may not be any value attached to our goods or a mechanism in place to sell them. As consumers, it’ll be up to us to vote with our dollars for products and services that get us as close as possible to the freedoms we had in the past, and if those freedoms don’t come close, to keep those dollars in our pockets.

The move to all-digital media kind of sounds like a raw deal, but it doesn’t have to be. If the Xbox One debacle has taught us anything, it’s that we do hold some power over these companies. We just have to come together to use it.

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