Increasingly the items we call our own exist in digital form.  However, are they really ‘ours’?

The term digital virtual good tends to conjure images of digital versions of material goods. MP3s now outsell CDs, whilst downloaded films and e-books are beginning to replace their material equivalents. However an ever-broadening array of items may be encompassed by this definition, including Facebook profiles, blogs, mobile applications and avatars within videogames. Research has highlighted the importance of convenience and reliability in delivering and servicing digital virtual goods. However, it is not only convenience that consumers want.  Prior research has also concluded that consumers’ relationships with digital virtual goods are not purely functional – just as material objects may become highly meaningful possessions, individuals may form emotional attachments to digital items. Consumers have described precious avatars within World of Warcraft and treasured digital music playlistsThese items are not simply impersonal digital commodities, but become digital possessions, perceived by consumers as ‘mine’. As these items come to develop personal significance questions of ownership are raised.

Digital virtual goods have been presented by some scholars as potentially liberating consumers from the burdens of ownership. Indeed, recent years have seen the emergence of an array of access-based models in the digital realm – it seems that for Spotify and Netflix users, owning films and music becomes unimportant as subscription based services provide greater convenience and increased choice. However, whilst these platforms present themselves as services, with the consumer under no illusion of ownership, for many digital virtual goods this is not the case. To what extent do we own the digital possessions that we ‘buy’ (e.g. music files stored upon our hard drive that we have purchased and downloaded from the iTunes store) or create (e.g. the Facebook profile that we have incrementally crafted with many years of photographs and status updates)?

Consumers often don’t understand that many of their digital possessions are not fully owned in the way that the material goods they purchase are assumed to be.

Existing approaches to ownership within consumer research do not equip us to account for the ownership of digital possessions. Within prior research there has been a tendency to compare and contrast full ownership (total, exclusive rights to goods) and access-based consumption (temporary, limited use of goods). However many digital items cannot be neatly categorized as either owned or accessed.

In our recent paper with Mike Molesworth in the Journal of Marketing Management, we draw from legal scholarship to recognize the broader, more complex array of ‘fragmented’ ownership configurations in the context of digital virtual goods.  Consumers’ rights of ownership are often surrendered on acceptance of terms set out in contractual agreements (that are, of course, rarely read and even less frequently understood). Such contractual agreements, often termed ‘End User License Agreements’ or ‘Terms of Service’, dictate what a user can and cannot do with their digital possessions. Furthermore, restrictions on consumers’ interaction with their digital possessions are often encoded into digital virtual goods themselves as automated forms of enforcement, whilst ownership rights are more easily enforced since surveillance and monitoring are possible through digital technologies and access can be withdrawn or modified without a reliance on legal systems and professionals (e.g. a World of Warcraft account may be closed and in-game content ‘reclaimed’ by Blizzard Entertainment without any call to law enforcement agencies or bailiffs, or the presentation of evidence).

Our paper identifies prominent ownership configurations in the context of digital virtual goods, explores the ways in which restrictions on consumers’ ownership are enforced, and discusses the potential implications of limited ownership for the ways in which consumers may interact with their digital possessions (e.g. Can we pass on our digital possessions to others? Are our digital possessions ‘ours’ forever?). In addressing such questions, the paper contributes to consumer and marketing research by moving beyond the current access-ownership dichotomy to acknowledge more complex ‘fragmented’ ownership configurations in the context of digital virtual goods, and by theorizing the often-overlooked relation between ownership and possession in consumption. In addition, our hope is to provoke discussions as to how public policy might be adapted in light of the issues of ownership highlighted in our current and future work.

Read the original research article: Watkins, R.D., Denegri-Knott, J., & Molesworth, M. (2016). The relationship between ownership and possession: observations from the context of digital virtual goods. Journal of Marketing Management, 32(1-2), 44-70.

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Rebecca Watkins

Rebecca Watkins

Rebecca D. Watkins is a lecturer in marketing at Cardiff University. Her research explores the impact of digital media upon consumer culture, in particular the ways in which notions of owning and possessing are transformed in the context of digital objects. Previously, Rebecca’s work has previously been published in the Journal of Consumer Culture, Research in Consumer Behaviour and the Journal of the Association of Consumer Research.

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Janice Denegri-Knott

Janice Denegri-Knott

Janice Denegri-Knott is Principal Lecturer at Bournemouth University’s Faculty of Media and Communication, specialising in digital consumption and critical marketing. She is also a member of the Emerging Consumer Cultures Group (ECCG) and Associate Editor of Marketing Theory. She has published extensively on what stimulates consumers’ desire to acquire digital virtual goods and how consumers’ come to assign value to their digital virtual possessions. She has conducted consultancy work for a range of media companies like The Daily Telegraph, iTV, Channel 4 and Hearst Magazines.

Disclaimer: Any views expressed in this posting are the views of the Author(s), and are not necessarily the views of the JMM Editors, Westburn Publishers Ltd. or Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.