PlayStation keeps reminding us why digital ownership sucks

In less than a week, Sony has given us two timely reminders of the tenuousness of digital “ownership” — and both reminders involve things on PlayStation.

Last week, Sony said that, because of content licensing “arrangements,” users wouldn’t be able to watch Discovery content they’ve purchased and that the content would be removed from their libraries as of December 31st, 2023. The resulting list of shows that will suddenly disappear because of corporate agreements is very long. Shows disappearing from streaming services is commonplace, but in this case, people are losing access to shows they bought to watch on demand whenever they wanted.

Then, on Monday, many users were unexpectedly banned from their PlayStation Network accounts, meaning that not only were they blocked from playing multiplayer games or using cloud streaming but they were also locked out of games they purchased digitally from Sony’s PlayStation marketplace. Affected users who may have spent years building a robust digital library were suddenly left without access to content they had bought through no fault of their own. It appears that Sony has since restored account access to people who were accidentally banned, but the company hasn’t explained what happened or said how it might prevent similar unexpected bans in the future. (Sony hasn’t replied to our multiple requests for comment.)

The ephemerality of digital “ownership” isn’t a new issue. Even though downloading and accessing digital content is often easier than trudging to a retail store to buy a physical copy of a game, you’re putting your faith in the platform holders to maintain their digital storefronts, the content on those storefronts, and their account systems so that your access keeps working.

The recent closure of Nintendo’s Wii U and 3DS eShops was a stark reminder that companies have the power to decide when you can buy digital content. While you can still redownload Wii U and 3DS games that you’ve purchased, it seems inevitable that Nintendo will stop letting you do that one day. (It’s already planning to shut down online services for those platforms, after all.) And remember when Google shut down Stadia?

I’m considering switching back to physical games.
Photo by James Bareham / The Verge

These recent PlayStation incidents are more aggravating, however, because of how sudden and seemingly unfair they are. With the Discovery content, Sony is giving users a matter of weeks to watch their purchased shows for the last time before the shows are yanked from their library entirely. And Sony isn’t offering any compensation for titles you’ve already bought or a way to transfer those purchases to another store. The PlayStation account bans were as swift as they were unexpected, and while resolution for most arrived within a few hours, Sony still hasn’t shared any public communication about what happened or why users should continue to trust the platform.

I’ve been all in on digital content for years. I don’t like the clutter of physical boxes, and I enjoy being able to switch games and movies without having to get off the couch. But after seeing more instances of companies removing “purchased” digital content — essentially making things I buy digitally a long-term rental — I’m seriously considering going back to buying discs and cartridges.


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