Reddit user trivial_sublime reached the top of the /r/all today after reporting that EA has shutdown access to Origin in Myanmar. The country, located in southeast Asia and hugging Thailand, had sanctions imposed in 1997. Also known as Burma, the sanctions were imposed as a direct result of the army’s refusal to cede power to a civilian government. Over the past five years the United States has been rolling back sanctions due to the slow transition to a civilian government. This finally came to an end in November of last year when Ms. Suu Kyi was elected through Myanmar’s first civilian elections. On October 7th of this year, President Obama signed an executive order detailing the termination of the Burma sanctions program.
“[The then-governing regime of 1997 Burma]… has been significantly altered by Burma’s substantial advances to promote democracy, including historic elections in November 2015 that resulted in the former opposition party, the National League for Democracy, winning a majority of seats in the national parliament and the formation of a democratically elected, civilian-led government; the release of many political prisoners; and greater enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression and freedom of association and peaceful assembly.” – October 7, 2016 Executive Order
As a direct result of the termination of the Burma Sanction Program (“BSR”) there are going to be several immediate changes:
- All individuals and entities blocked pursuant to the Burmese Sanctions Regulations (BSR) have been removed from OFAC’s [Office of Foreign Assets Control] Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (SDN) List.
- All property and interests in property blocked pursuant to the BSR are unblocked.
- The ban on the importation into the United States of Burmese-origin jadeite and rubies, and any jewelry containing them, has been revoked.
- All OFAC-administered restrictions under the Burma sanctions program regarding banking or financial transactions with Burma are no longer in effect.
What is unclear is why EA has decided to implement these changes now with their Origin 10 update and not 20 years ago when the sanctions were implemented. It is especially unclear since U.S. based Steam, offering a similar service, has no such barriers in place. It is important to keep in mind that all of the information we have so far is second hand from a volunteer named DarkAmaranth1966 on the EA support forums. We likely won’t know more until EA makes an official statement or I can get my hands on an Origin 10 update log. Hopefully there is more than “made changes for US compliance”.
Why can digital distributors do this?
When you use a service like Origin or Steam you are subject to their Terms of Service. Included in this document is this bit of legalese:
EA and similar companies usually have a plethora of licensing terms similar to this. If you’d like to look over all the ones that a large corporation like EA uses head here.
What the above means is that when you use their service and purchase their games you don’t actually own the games in the way that you might think. In order to understand what’s going on here we need to dive into copyright law a bit.
Copyright law protects original literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works such as drawings, written works, music, and computer software. Say you created a painting, song, or story. At the moment of creation, you own a copyright in that product. Registration is available if you’d like to go that route but it isn’t necessary since the right is formed when you’ve completed the work. Now, as a copyright holder in the product you have several rights. You may prevent third parties from copying, converting, or publicly performing the work. This right isn’t absolute and has some limitations. One such limitation is known as first-sale doctrine.
The first sale doctrine creates an exception to your normal bundle of rights. It provides that when you sell something that physically embodies your work (like a book) then you have exhausted certain rights in that product. This means that the person who bought your book dispose of it however he wants. He can burn it, give it away, sell it, or even rent it out. What he cannot do is copy it. Now this applies to video games as well. When you bought Super Smash Brothers for the N64, you purchased a copyrighted work in a physical embodiment (the cartridge). You could do whatever you wanted with that cartridge but you could not copy it. Now this is a problem for gaming companies. If they sell you a game and then you turn around and sell it to someone else, they have lost a sale. Thanks to the explosion of digital distribution software, such as Origin and Steam, companies have discovered a way to get around this bugaboo. Licensing.
A license means you have the right to possess something (subject to a contract) but you don’t have ownership of it. It’s kind of like renting something but more complicated. When I sell you a book, you now have ownership over the book but not the work contained within. So you can do whatever you like with the book except copy it. Now what if you could copy that book as easily as a couple taps on the cover? You could just go to a library, rent a book, and then copy it as many times as you wanted. The solution is to have the author hold the book up to your face whenever you wanted and turn the pages for you. If you so much as reached for the cover he could snap it shut and walk off. If you so much as annoyed the author or did anything else on his list of “no-no’s”, he could snap it shut and walk off. That’s basically software licensing (also eBooks).
In the hypothetical above: the book is our game, the author is our digital distributor, and our list of “no-no’s” is our terms of service agreement. Let’s bring this all back to the start. EA has stopped their service for everyone in Myanmar. For whatever reason, “being in Myanmar” is now included on their list of “no-no’s” and they’ve walked off. This could absolutely be some sort of compliance with new government regulation. Now courts don’t always look so kindly on terms of service. You’ve paid for a product and having someone arbitrarily able to take it away whenever they like is frowned upon. So it remains to be seen how things will shake out but the purpose of this article isn’t to speculate but rather dip our toes into the circumstances surrounding this sort of thing. Namely, the revoking of access to games you’ve paid for.
For more information on the issue of video games and the first-sale doctrine check out this excellent law review article by Stephen McIntyre: http://scholarship.law.berkeley.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2018&context=btlj
P.S. If someone can dig up the Origin 10 change log I’d appreciate it and would like to update the article when I’ve given it a look.