Think you own your Marketplace apps? Think again.
It’s an issue which crops up every so often: when we pay for all sorts of media – books, albums, films, games – we aren’t actually purchasing the media itself. Rather, we are paying for a license – a license to read, listen to, watch or play said media, to enjoy its benefits for as long as the rights holder allows us. It’s because of this that, for example, you have to pay more for a film license that will allow you to show it to a large audience, or to rent it out.
This means little to the average consumer. There’s been the occasional mild furore about whether consumers are allowed to copy or backup their media for their own benefit – a brief period when certain record companies tried to stop people ripping their CDs to hard-drive is notable – but in practice little was actually done about it. The issue of sharing music, of course, is another matter entirely.
But that’s not the issue we’re now facing. The limitations of users’ licenses have started to chafe with the onset of digital distribution, and Windows Phone users are getting their first taste of that. This week, several games were removed from the Marketplace due to the developers’ licenses running out. Those games were I-Play’s Fast and Furious: Adrenaline, and THQ’s Star Wars titles Battle for Hoth and Cantina. Straightforward enough – I-Play and THQ no longer hold the rights to distribute Fast and Furious or Star Wars titles on Windows Phone, so they’ve been removed from sale. And if that’s all there was to it, there wouldn’t be a problem.
Unfortunately, that isn’t all that happened. As a result of the games being removed from the Marketplace, people who’d paid for them previously discovered that they could no longer reinstall the games: should the games be removed from their phone for any reason – whether by uninstalling them, or having to subject the phone to a hard reset – then they would not be able to play them ever again.
The thing is, this is hardly the first time a digital distribution service has had to remove titles from sale. Numerous games have been removed from the App Store for similar reasons; major PC services like Steam and GOG.com have had the same; even Amazon’s Kindle store has had books removed from sale due to rights issues. The problem comes in the way that Microsoft have dealt with the issue – or rather, the way that they haven’t.
Steam and GOG.com have had the most consumer-friendly response to these problems: they’ve removed games from sale when the rights were lost, but kept the files on their servers for anyone who had already purchased the license, allowing players to download at their leisure. They also allow their users to backup any games they own at will, to ensure that even if the entire service were to fail, their games would still be there.
Amazon went to the opposite extreme: following the removal of books from their service, they actively removed them from people’s Kindles. This caused quite a commotion, with many people justifiably angry at the removal of the title from their devices, but at least Amazon immediately refunded every person affected.
Apple’s approach has been closest to Microsoft’s, with removed applications no longer available for purchase or download. However, there is one significant difference between Apple’s and Microsoft’s platforms: backups. When applications are downloaded through iTunes, they are automatically saved to the computer they were downloaded on, allowing the user to reinstall them at will without needing to download them again. More than that, with Apple’s iCloud allowing people to back their applications up online whether they’re for sale any more or not. In other words, user intervention is required, but an iOS user can back up their applications at any time, either to their own computer or to an online cloud, and know they will always be available.
By contrast, Microsoft have no such systems in place. Unlike Steam and GOG.com, when items are removed from sale, they are no longer downloadable by anyone. Unlike Amazon, blanket refunds are not offered to purchasers when titles are removed from the Marketplace. And unlike Apple, users are not given the opportunity to backup individual applications to any device, so if a title is removed from download, users can never reacquire them.
This is, quite simply, unacceptable. Consumers who have purchased a title rightly expect to be able to access their content at will. That Microsoft offers no protection, not even the option to backup your purchases, and hasn’t even issued refunds to all those affected, shows a massive lack of judgement on their part. Steps must be taken to ensure that users have some sort of protection against this in future, lest they lose confidence in the Marketplace.
The ball’s in your court, Microsoft. Don’t let us down.