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Raph Koster Talks Digital Ownership In Latest Riffs By Raph Blog

Joseph Bradford Posted:
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Raph Koster's blogs on the Playable Worlds site keep coming, and this time the legendary MMO developer is tackling the concept of digital ownership. 

Koster starts the blog with a clear cut statement: digital ownership is "illusory."

"Let’s get one thing out of the way first. Ownership of anything digital is illusory, and always will be." 

Unlike physical goods where possessing something goes a long way towards proving ownership, digital goods are different in that you, as Koster points out, "never physically have anything." At the end of the day, the digital good is simply data - something that can be replicated and duplicated "infinitely."

Koster goes on to explain that while the data contained within a "container" is replicable, we've tried to "stuff this genie back in the bottle" through the use of EULAs, subscriptions, and more. 

"Once upon a time, Stewart Brand said “information wants to be free.” That wasn’t just a philosophical statement. It was a literal description of digital data, which is effectively an infinite resource.

The history of computing is full of examples of trying to stuff this genie back in the bottle. It’s why we have software licenses, EULAs, subscriptions, dongles, DRM, and the DMCA. Oh, and everything about crypto. They are all about turning an infinite resource back into something scarce, recreating a non-digital world."

Koster talks about ownership, whether physical or digital, and likens the two in the way that you may not own the data specifically, you do own the container it's held within. This is much like how ownership of a physical good, such as a CD or a book might work in the real world: you own the physical book, but can't claim ownership of the material therein.

"In earlier articles, I emphasized that the data that made up a virtual sword existed in a format, and formats themselves then demand a system environment with a system that knows what to do with data in that format, and when you send it to the client, it needs another chunk of data, the art which is also in its own format and requires another parser to interpret it so it can be rendered, and so on.

All of this should sound familiar to you because it’s much the same as when you read a book. A story is data contained in a physical book. We shouldn’t forget that when you buy a book, you own the container and not the content."

It's an interesting post that touches on a few different aspects of digital goods, sduch as touching the fact that in a digital world, such as a game, you never really own anything, just the license to access the content. He also touches on how all digital goods, whether it be code in a game or a Veblen good (like a "high end generative art [NFT]") is going to come up against copyright law.

"Where does this leave you with digital object ownership? The only real answer is “uncomfortable.” Because even when you explore cutting edge stuff like NFTs; delve into the controversies over right-click-save-as, pump-and-dumps, or energy consumption; whether you admire the tidy Veblen good markets around high end generative art NFTs or not – you still run headlong into the fact that all that tech is going to collide with copyright law in a messy way.

Put another way: if you get a cool branded digital object in MegaWorld, and you move it to NiftyWorld in the metaverse… some rightsholder may tell you “no, you can’t do that, because we don’t have a publishing agreement with NiftyWorld. MegaWorld has exclusive rights, and I don’t care that you own this.”

And there is always a rightsholder. The law creates that rightsholder by default the moment the work in question is created."

You can check out the full blog post on the Playable Worlds website - or catch up with the previous articles on the blog. It's well worth a read, especially to get more insight into how the new studio is approaching their upcoming sandbox MMORPG.


Joseph Bradford

Joseph has been writing or podcasting about games in some form since about 2012. Having written for multiple major outlets such as IGN, Playboy, and more, Joseph started writing for MMORPG in 2015. When he's not writing or talking about games, you can typically find him hanging out with his 10-year old or playing Magic: The Gathering with his family. Also, don't get him started on why Balrogs *don't* have wings. You can find him on Twitter @LotrLore