Digital Delusion: Do you really own what you buy?

Reporter: Lindsey Sablan

FORT MYERS, Fla. — It’s the time of year for giving and receiving gifts, and many of them will be digital books, music and movies.

But while people may get those gifts, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll own them.

Ron Giordan buys whatever he can in digital form, especially video games to play with his son.

“I always thought when I downloaded a video game and you hit the ‘buy now’ button that you owned it,” he said.

Professor Aaron Perzanowski co-authored a report that looked into what consumers thought they were getting when they clicked those “buy” or “buy now” buttons for digital content.

Most such products are not sold to buyers, but merely licensed, Perzanowski said.

“They often think they have the same sorts of rights that they would have with the physical goods,” he said. “So that would include things like resale, or giving an item away or lending it to a friend or even keeping it forever, and oftentimes that’s just not true.”

Restrictions are usually spelled out in the terms and conditions, but it’s not reasonable to expect consumers to read through all the legalities, Perzanowski said. And that’s not his only concern.

“I think the biggest issue for consumers is the disconnect between the marketing language that they encounter in the real world, phrases like ‘Buy Now’ or ‘Own,’ and the reality of what consumers are getting for their money,” he said.

The topic has become such an issue of concern that the government has taken notice.

The Commerce Department Internet Task Force is considering “a list of alternatives to the buy button” that would avoid suggestion of ownership.

Not only does the word “buy” need to disappear, Perzanowski said, but the terms of the transaction should be front and center when consumers click.
“The other option, of course, is to actually sell consumers the product they think they’re getting,” he said.

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