An Example of International Copyright Helping Nobody — Not Customer, nor Developer, nor Publisher

This is cross-posted from my blog on Gamasutra.

This is the story all about how
My mind got flipped, turned upside down.
I’d like to take a minute, just sit right there,
And I’ll tell you how Apple’s customer service punished me for wanting to make an in-app purchase.

The Setup

When I make calls to customer service centers, I don’t usually have a normal problem. That’s the benefit of being more computer-savvy than most; I already know to check the cables, try restarting, clear the cache, etc. This time my problem was simple. I was pretty sure I understood the cause of the problem. When I made this call, I expected to be told there was no help for it and to be on my merry way, but Apple went a step further than that.

Here’s my unorthodox situation. I am a U.S. citizen living in Japan. I have a U.S. iTunes account, with which I’ve been merrily buying things for who knows how many years now from both the U.S. and from Japan. A little over a week ago, I got an iPhone from my Japanese phone carrier. I got it all set up and had no problems using my U.S. iTunes account with the Japanese iPhone.

I already had licenses for some iOS apps, from a time when my best friend got himself an iPhone and let me borrow his iPod Touch for a while. I added to that some new apps, including NimbleBit’s Tiny Tower. I decided that I wanted to make an in-app purchase, and that’s where I hit a snag.

My phone politely informed me that I couldn’t make in-app purchases and suggested that I contact customer service. Hmm, I thought. Maybe it’s because I have a U.S. iTunes account and am in Japan. So I tried making a purchase through a VPN. That didn’t succeed, either. So I called the U.S. Apple customer service.

The Punchline

I’m not going to give a full run-down of the call. In summary: I told the customer service rep what was up. He got me to give him my user ID so he could “see if [he] could find anything on my account.” He was gone for a couple of minutes, and when he came back he told me that they’d put a note of some kind on my account to keep it from allowing me to make any purchases outside the U.S. in the future, that I was in violation of the Terms of Service for having done so at all, and that I would still have access to things already purchased.

His conduct was kind of insulting; he got amazingly defensive in anticipation of hostility which was never going to come from me. He was just doing his job. I was in violation of the Terms of Service, which I should have read more thoroughly. I understood that he had done what he’d had to do to comply with Apple’s policies. And that those policies had been put into place because of international copyright law.

I also understood that international copyright law is the devil.

Here’s How This Hurts Everybody

First, the obvious one: I, the customer, am impacted. This decision to half-lock my account so the iTunes servers will pay attention to my global location infringes upon my life by making it so I can’t buy anything with that account. Yes, I can (and do) have a Japanese iTunes account for making purchases, but then I am stuck with getting my apps in Japanese — if the apps I want are available at all. Assuming the games I want are there, I don’t want the mindless games I play before I fall asleep to be in a foreign language. Furthermore, although I can use both accounts with my iPhone, I can only use one at a time. It’s incredibly inconvenient, at best. My motivation to buy anything is drastically reduced — not to mention the fact that the soft-boiled chicken egg of faith has cracks in the shell now.

Two, it hurts the developers. Why? Because even if I want to buy their software… I can’t! You have an amazing new game on the iTunes store? Fantastic. I’ll buy it when I go back to the states. If I ever go back to the states. Because I might not. If I do, it’ll be years from now. Hopefully I’ll remember that your game exists when the time comes.

And third… it hurts Apple itself. Because every lost sale is a sale that Apple doesn’t get its 30% cut of.

So if — as the customer service rep suggested — these policies are in place because of international copyright law… who the frell is this law helping?