Issues Magazine

Prosumption, Property and Public Policy in the Digital Realm

By Rebecca Watkins and Mike Molesworth

Emerging digital technologies are transforming consumer cultures, but many consumers overlook the restrictions on the use and ownership of content they have created.

The term “digital goods” tends to conjure images of digital versions of material goods, and indeed the shift towards digital media presents a significant trend. MP3s now outsell CDs, while downloaded films and books are beginning to replace their material equivalents. The result is ever-expanding catalogues of ebooks instantly available to download to eReaders, and vast music libraries available on smartphones and MP3 players. These goods can be accessed with the click of a button and often at lower costs than their material equivalents; they don’t need to be manufactured (beyond their initial production), packaged, distributed, or held in stock by retailers (who traditionally added their own mark-up).

The rise in information available to consumers through price comparison sites, review sites, specialist online communities and deal forums means manufacturers and middle-men are feeling the pressure of informed, savvy consumers who know what they want and how to get it at the best price long before they enter stores – if they do so at all.

Shopping online enables access to a wider range of consumer goods at lower prices, conveniently delivered to our doors. High streets and malls have been forced to develop more engaging and pleasurable retail experiences to compensate for their smaller ranges and higher prices.

A hidden price of such choice and convenience is restricted use; even after purchase, many digital goods often cannot be sold on, given away or even transferred to a different device. An alternative, or for many consumers a supplement, is to use an online subscription model. Companies such as Spotify, Lovefilm and Netflix charge a monthly fee for continued access to libraries of media where users access, but never own, large catalogues of goods for a regular fee.

Even more profound changes are happening in consumer culture and market relations. Beyond the digitisation of traditionally material goods we see new forms of digital goods with no clear material equivalent, from social media accounts, apps, blogs and bookmarks to digital swords, potions and avatars within video games. Here, emerging notions of ownership are often less clear. Increasingly these goods are neither purchased nor subscribed to as mass-produced commodities, but are created, in part, by the consumer. This significant trend in consumer culture sees the merging of the consumer and producer, with the digital “prosumer” co-constructing “products” with a company.

Consider social media accounts. Although the host companies provide the infrastructure within which consumers may create their profiles, own the servers on which they are hosted and pay the website developers who create and maintain the platform, the value of these websites ultimately lies in consumers’ labour and creative input. It is the user who uploads and tags multiple photographs, fills out personal information and continuously provides the up-to-date and socially valuable information that makes websites such as Facebook or YouTube a success. In virtual worlds like Second Life or Minecraft, players may create elaborate environments, crafting exotic buildings and spaces for themselves and other users.

In the developing language of marketing theory, consumers and producers come together in these situations to co-create value. It’s argued that this empowers the consumer, who is now a “non-alienated” part of the production process. Indeed research shows that over time such goods take on significant meanings for consumers, simultaneously benefiting the company since this attachment may prolong the consumer’s engagement with the service.

However, recent academic critique suggests that discussion of mutual creation of value overlooks the fact that consumers are being “put to work” by large international corporations that profit from their labour. In return for access to a desirable service – such as a social network, an online game or a blog – consumers (or prosumers) work on the platform for free, but the company behind the platform uses the results of that labour to both encourage other consumers to engage with the site, and to generate revenue from advertising.

A restrictive end user licence agreement (EULA), which denies the consumer legal ownership of the fruits of their labour, ensures that such labour can be exploited for profit by the corporation. However, consumers often don’t understand that the meaningful digital possessions they have painstakingly crafted are not theirs. Rights of ownership are surrendered on acceptance of the EULA, and for consumers the results may be unexpected.

EULAs dictate what a user can and cannot do with the things they create. This may be coded into the software (e.g. through digital rights management), rendering consumers unable to sell them on, lend them or even to bequeath them after their death, while restrictions may limit the devices they can use to access them (e.g. an Xbox Live account and associated gamer profiles require an Xbox for access).

Consumers may be unaware that the company behind the site makes no guarantee that it will continue to support it. When Google recently discontinued its RSS reader, daily users who had built up profiles suddenly found that their account would be taken away from them (although Google has offered tools to allow accounts to be transferred to another service). If the company wishes it can simply remove all the content that a user has created, and the terms of the EULA mean that it is well within their its to do so.

At the time of writing, companies such as Facebook, Instagram and World of Warcraft retain the right to terminate users’ accounts and thus eliminate their right to their profile and the content they have uploaded and cultivated. Termination may be due to the consumers’ violation of the company’s terms, but might also result from the company’s collapse or a technical error. World of Warcraft provider Blizzard, for example, retains the right under its EULA to terminate gamers’ accounts “for any reason or no reason, with or without notice”. As a result, the continued possession of digital goods stored online is never certain, and issues may arise when consumers develop attachments to such content.

Many young children have Facebook pages created by their parents, who religiously upload treasured photographs and leave meaningful messages to be read together in years to come. These parents cannot rest assured that this lovingly crafted digital scrapbook will remain available in even 2 years time, let alone for their children to reflect on in their adult years. The possession of these hosted digital goods remains reliant on the persistence of their host websites, over which the consumer has no control, in contrast to the possession of material goods where possession and legal ownership are often synonymous.

Although such business models are ubiquitous among prosumer-reliant Web 2.0 companies, the idea of applying similar terms to material goods seems laughable. Imagine buying wood from a local DIY retailer. You use that wood to craft a coffee table based on plans also picked up in store, but adding your own creative flair. You are proud of your work, it’s an achievement and the table becomes important to you. You even show it off to friends and relatives. It’s more than just your coffee table: it represents your taste, your skill, and even your identity.

One day you decide you want to work at the table. You place your laptop on its surface and begin. However you promptly receive an email from the DIY store informing you that under the terms agreed at the time of purchasing the wood, the table can only legally be used for placing beverages; other uses are prohibited by the EULA and will result in your table being confiscated. Shocked, you dig out the EULA you skim-read at the point of purchase and realise that indeed you did agree to those terms – the company would be well within its rights to confiscate the table.

Unable to work at your table you realise that this table doesn’t suit your needs and you plan to sell it or perhaps give it to a friend. You try, but another email arrives telling you that under the terms agreed you can’t transfer ownership and the coffee table must be used by you and you alone. Exasperated, you decide to keep the coffee table and simply use it for resting drinks. The next morning you wake to find the table has disappeared. A further email is waiting in your inbox. It informs you that you can no longer use your table since the DIY store no longer wants to support this product, although it does helpfully direct you to a different table at another DIY store which it suggests you acquire and assemble instead.

This imagined scenario seems implausible. We are used to owning the things we possess. We see things we want, buy them, then make them our own. We can customise them to our tastes, sell or lend them, bequeath them, or simply throw them away.

For example, when redecorating their home a consumer may engage with the market to purchase tools, wallpaper, furniture and other commodities. However, the influence of the producers of these items often ends at the point of purchase, and the consumer may do with these owned goods as they wish without restriction by the market. Online, however, consumers are forced to continually engage with the market to access their digital possessions, and thus the spheres of market and culture become blurred.

So beyond the promise of better information and greater access to more goods, lower prices and the convenience of home delivery, digital technologies may be leading to more profound changes in consumer culture. Increasingly the objects that people find meaningful are digital, accessed via an entire range of expensive material technological devices that require constant updating. More than this, these items are often made by consumers themselves using free or low-cost online services.

Yet a result of these forms of “access-based”, prosumer-reliant business models is that we do not legally own or control many of our meaningful possessions. We must either continue working for the platform owner or keep paying them to maintain access to what we perceive to be our own “stuff”.

Public policy still needs to catch up with these developments. Although the online privacy agenda is well established, what we are yet to see is how consumers might regain rights to the ongoing use of their digital possessions.