In our increasingly corporate world, more and more of our culture is created, not by individuals seeking to express themselves and represent themselves and their community, but by corporations seeking nothing more than to generate a quick and efficient profit. Movies, music, books, video games; some of it might be made be independent creators, but few have the power to penetrate the zeitgeist with their art in the way that an entertainment company can. Think along the lines of Electronic Arts, or Universal Studios. Not many major movie or video game publishers exist - the art is in the hands of the few. They're the owners of those works, not any of the people or the companies that actually helped make them, and they retain all rights to do with it as they wish.
"Who cares?" Some might say. "A small number of companies may own the entertainment that I love, but I can still access that entertainment, so what of it?". Well, as we’ll soon find out, everyone should care.
You may be able to easily watch your favorite 2004 movie on DVD or Netflix right now, but what happens when Netflix decides that renewing the license to show that movie just isn’t worth it? What happens when those DVDs break down and no longer play? They don’t last forever, after all, even with proper use and storage.
Video games have an even more questionable future ahead of them when it comes to individual titles; not only does the user need the actual game itself, on a hard drive or other storage medium, but they also need specialized software, and sometimes specialized hardware (in the case of consoles) to actually play the game. If you think that PC games are safe, think again; try playing a game from 1996 on your modern machine. At best, your experience may vary. As for console games; if you don’t have the relevant console, you can just forget about playing your games.
It’s important to keep in mind that we’re thinking about all these things with the future in mind. DVDs aren’t decaying now, but they will one day. There are lots and lots of PlayStation 2 or Nintendo 64 consoles out there now, but no piece of electronics lasts forever, one day the very last one will break - rendering every game cartridge or PS2 game disk in the world instantly useless and every game instantly unplayable. That is, if users stay within the confines of the law.
In the confines of the law, the user is a second class citizen. They are only allowed to use the content that they paid for, at the mercy of the owner of that content. If there’s one day no legal way to watch a certain movie or play a specific game then that’s 100% fine as far as that company is concerned. They made their money when they sold you the content; what happens afterward is on you. Want to see an out-of-print movie but no playable copies exist? Too bad. Want to play an obscure PlayStation 3 game but every console died years ago? Too bad.
It might seem trivial to the casual observer that Donny Regular Citizen won’t be able play Call of Duty 2 in 30 years time, or see the 4th Die Hard movie (it’s great, I recommend!), but this is about more than any one piece of work. This is about preserving our culture. About leaving something for future generations to enjoy and build on, the way that we built on previous generations. Imagine the great works of the past; all of their paintings and sculptures and monuments and buildings and culture – lost to history. By insisting that movies or games only be consumed in a specific way, that’s what we are ensuring for future generations; a culture nothing more than dust in the wind.
In the confines of the law, great works loved by millions will be lost, but playing solely within the confines of the law is like only swimming in bathtubs – a lot more is possible if you’re willing to take a few risks. Rather than waiting on corporations or other rights holders to allow you to enjoy the content you want, take control. Store and enjoy the content yourself, on your own hardware, with your own software, on your own terms. We touched on this in a few other articles, but let’s expand on that idea.
Movies are quite a simple affair to archive and keep for your own devices – simply use software to rip from a disk and store on your own NAS, or other storage media. Easy. Video games are quite a bit more complex. The PC is easy; even older games work on modern hardware with a bit of tinkering. The main issue here is console games, not that it’s a downright impasse. Playing console games on a PC requires emulators and tedious configuration and all sorts of nonsense – but you can still get it going relatively quickly. Once you do, you’ll be able to play the game – any console game – for as long as you like, console deaths and hardware defects be damned. You’ve once again regained control of your digital life.
Console emulation is a touchy subject, and it certainly seems like nothing but a bunch of PC elitists who want nothing to do with a console but nonetheless want to play the games, but it’s a lot more than that. It’s about the preservation of art. As we discussed, one day, the last of a particular console generation will die, taking all of its games with it. Current and future generations will never be able to experience the thousands of games released for that system, if it weren’t for emulation. They might seem like nothing but worthless entertainment, but if that’s true, why bother playing them even now? Why do people emulate past titles today?
Emulation is also quite a contentious issue in the eyes of the law – some see it as downright piracy. I don’t agree, but I see the merit in the argument, so why not a compromise? Why not make it legal to emulate games that one hasn’t been legally able to buy from the original vendor for the last, say, 5 years? I don’t see the merit of the “piracy” argument if there is literally no other way of obtaining the game. Asking people to miss out on what makes them happy, for no other reason than a company can’t see value in offering that thing for sale, is a morally bankrupt argument that reeks of ‘corporate apologist’.
Of course, this isn’t a call to arms telling one and all to emulate whatever they want. I couldn’t possibly condone that. Just know that what is allowed right now is not the ideal solution for what could and should be. The only person in charge of your ability to enjoy content is you. Art should be freely available to the public after the original author(s) have lost interest in monetizing it, for the good of the public. Why should we be denied access to something simply because a company “isn’t using it right now”? Disgusting.