Buyer Beware: Do You Really Own Digital Items?

Monthly tips from the Wisconsin Department of Ag, Trade, & Consumer Protection

Have you ever bought a video game, e-book, song, or movie to enjoy on one of your devices? When you buy a physical item, it’s yours – but digital products sometimes work differently.

When you “buy” a digital product, you may actually be purchasing a license to access it – not the product itself. In some cases, the seller itself may have licensing issues with the content you bought, making your own license to use it worthless. Many digital items also come with Digital Rights Management (DRM) software, which prevents users from using the product in a way that wasn’t approved by the seller or creator.

In addition, you may have access to a digital item only while you have an active account with the platform or website that sold it, or only for as long as that platform or website stays in business.

The next time you consider buying a digital item, refer to the terms of service first. Details about what control you will have over your digital product are usually explained in the fine print. Purchasing a license instead of a product itself is not inherently bad or undesirable, but it is important for consumers to know what they are spending their money on and how that purchase could be affected in future, unforeseen circumstances.

Wisconsin Consumer Protection Hotline: (800) 422-7128 or