[courtesy of ToppsApps.com]
We have seen a surge in digital culture over the last few decades. The birth of the internet has redefined the rules of engagement to a love/hate relationship in our interactions with technology. I say interactions because, let’s be real, we hold full conversations (and arguments) with our technology (looking at you, Alexa). The advance of technology is simultaneous with the extinguishment of archaic (once revered) products and services.
When is the last time you used any of these things? Some of you may not even know what they are and will need to Google it:
DVD (google Blockbuster)
Dumbphone (including pagers)
Received a physical paycheck
Dictionary or Encyclopedia
Hard drives (including USB) and paper documents are expected to be obsolete in the next decade. So, it makes sense and delightful that card collections have gone digital, or is it? Being the stunning beacon of optimism that I am, my first thought went straight to Ebooks.
What’s The Worst That Could Happen?
In July of 2019, 2 years after launch, Microsoft closed down its Ebook Library and erased all content purchased from Microsoft EBookstore from user’s devices. These users probably felt confident in purchasing from Microsoft because it is a colossal company that offers longevity. That wasn’t the case for the Ebookstore.
Digital Rights Management (DRM): The Eraser & Censorship Tool
The users of Microsoft were under the misconception that by purchasing the Ebooks, they exerted ownership over the books in their ‘possession.’ DRM serves as a digital lock on content that doesn’t allow people to share files with others (piracy), and it can be used to protect copyrights in intellectual property (you own nothing).
Make sure that you are reviewing DRM disclosures, usually under terms and conditions, for any music, game, Ebook, movie, or any other digital content you purchase. No one expected Microsoft to close the Ebookstore. You can pause this article while running to check the Terms on your Amazon Library (dramatic pause).
Coincidentally, no one would expect Apple to stop running any digital content section on the AppStore, but what if they do? Technology keeps advancing, what if a competitor comes along and Apple decides to shut down a few servers? They will be able to wipe the content that you purchased.
Heck, in today’s climate, if they believe that content violates their conditions, they can erase it. There is mad censorship going on out there. So, if you are a card collector and your player does something horrific that Topps doesn’t like, can they erase your digital card?
If you look under asshole in the dictionary, you will find John Rocker. Rocker became a legendary villainous twat in baseball while employed as a pitcher with the Braves, Indians, Rangers, and Devil Rays for over 6 years. In 1999, he was interviewed by Sports Illustrated in an article entitled:
AT FULL BLAST SHOOTING OUTRAGEOUSLY FROM THE LIP, BRAVES CLOSER JOHN ROCKER BANGS AWAY AT HIS FAVORITE TARGETS: THE METS, THEIR FANS, THEIR CITY AND JUST ABOUT EVERYONE IN IT
In his ‘blast’ he said:
“I’d retire first. It’s the most hectic, nerve-wracking city,” Rocker said on the possibility of ever playing for the New York Mets or New York Yankees. “Imagine having to take the 7 Train to the ballpark looking like you’re riding through Beirut next to some kid with purple hair, next to some queer with AIDS, right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time, right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids. It’s depressing… The biggest thing I don’t like about New York are the foreigners. You can walk an entire block in Times Square and not hear anybody speaking English. Asians and Koreans and Vietnamese and Indians and Russians and Spanish people and everything up there. How the hell did they get in this country?”
Rocker later took his girlfriend, Julie McGee, to the 29th Season of Survivor to win a million bucks. On the show, he didn’t want anyone to know who he was and hid his identity. His charm eventually came out when his girlfriend beat him in one of the challenges and when he threatened to beat up another cast member, who was a girl.
If you were one of the lucky ones that received a Rocker card in your Topps Update pack, it was your card, for better or worse - or until you sold it. Would you have that same option in digital format? Or would the card be erased after Survivor?
It’s not as far fetched as you may think. George Orwell wrote 1984 - a book that exposes the dangers of mind control. Ironically, Amazon glossed over the book’s theme when they deleted it from Kindle and several other of his books using DRM as the authority to do so.
Full disclosure, I am not an attorney, and I suspect that most users of these apps are not attorneys well-versed in intellectual property laws. I feel pretty confident that no user has taken the Topps Terms & Conditions on any Topps App to an attorney before downloading the app either, yet, you are subject to them.
In reading them, I found a few concerning paragraphs about how safe I would feel investing the same money into digital collecting as I do into traditional collecting. I put the ‘snippets’ here under the sections, and I will not interpret them as I am not an attorney, but I will give my opinion.
LICENSE TO USE THE APP: ....Topps grants you a limited, non-exclusive, non-transferable, revocable license to access and use the Apps (including all software, content, virtual items, and other material associated with the Apps) for your own personal, noncommercial use only. We reserve all rights in and to the Apps not expressly granted to you under these Terms.
TOPPS INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY: We (or where applicable, our licensors) own all rights, title, and interests in and to (i) the Apps... and (ii) any and all other content and materials available through the Apps and all intellectual property rights therein (“Topps Content”). ...you have no rights in or to any Topps Content. We reserve the right to modify or discontinue the Apps (or any parts of any Apps with or without notice at any time. Topps shall not be liable to you or any third party (including, without limitation, our licensors) for any modification, suspension or discontinuance of the Apps.
IN-APP PURCHASES; VIRTUAL CURRENCY: ...You expressly understand and agree that our Apps and your use of In-App Purchase is at your sole risk ...All In-App Purchases (whether of Topps Content or virtual currency) are final. We reserve the right to terminate an In-App Subscription at any time and change subscription terms and prices from time to time... any such purchase, as stated in these Terms, all rights, title, and interests in and to the Topps Content, including all copyrights, trademarks, and other intellectual property rights therein, are held by Topps or its licensors. Virtual currency may never be redeemed or exchanged for real money, goods, services or any other item with real monetary value. You may not transfer any virtual currency to any other party (whether within or outside the Apps). Topps has the right to regulate, modify, eliminate or otherwise change the terms of its virtual currency at any time, without notice.
INDEMNITY: You agree to defend, indemnify and hold harmless Topps, its parent company, affiliates, subsidiaries, employees, contractors, licensors and their affiliates, telecommunication providers, content providers, and assignees and their respective officers, directors, employees and agents from and against any and all liabilities, claims, actions, demands, damages, costs, losses and expenses (including reasonable attorney’s fees) made by any third party due to or arising out of your use of the Apps, any transaction resulting from use of the Apps (including, without limitation, any In-App Purchases), your connection to the Apps, your violation of these Terms, your submission, posting, or transmission of User Materials to the Apps, and/or your violation of any rights of another.
TERMINATION: We may, in our sole discretion at any time, and for any reason or no reason, and without notice or liability, immediately terminate your access to all or any part of the Apps and/or these Terms. Termination may include, but not be limited to (i) removal of the Apps and access to all offerings within the Apps (ii) the deletion of all account information related to the Apps, User Materials, and other content (including Topps Content) associated with your account(s) and (iii) barring any further use of or access to the Apps. Topps Content available through the App may not be downloadable or tradeable if the Apps are terminated.
Survivorship: You agree that any of your registered accounts on any of the Apps are non-transferable and any rights to your user ID or account contents terminate upon your death.
What Is A Collectible to You?
Before I give my opinion, maybe we should ask why we collect cards. I ask because people collect for many different reasons. I have three children; each child has a collection that I started for them:
My oldest son has stamps.
My middle boy has baseball cards.
My daughter has dragonkins
I started this to have something to do and share throughout their life and something that they could remember me by at the end of mine. So, the value of collecting for me is sentimental. Can sentimental value be digitized?
In this instance, it would be a ‘hard’ no for me. If I purchase a collectible card, clear ownership is essential to me, as is the collection’s longevity and the ability to pass the collection onto my grandchildren. This is deep-seated within my value system.
My brother inherited my grandfather’s baseball collection; I inherited a family quilt with a swath of clothing from every generation since my family migrated here right down to my children. After what I have read above, my mind is made up that a digitized collection is not something I feel comfortable investing in because it contradicts why I collect.
On the other side of the digital coin, I am a casual gamer. I have spent an embarrassing amount of time and money on mobile gaming that fits under DRM limits. Frankly, that doesn’t bother me because I feel that what I am paying for is entertainment.
Entertainment is not something that I intend to keep, or pass down, or has any other value to me than passing the time in a fun way. If Apple were to delete my game, I would throw a tantrum for about 5 minutes while looking for another game to play. Now, if my Amazon movie library disappears, I would be staring at the screen, crushing the remote in my grip and knowing deep in my soul that this will be the reason I end up in jail.
If you collect cards because you like the thrill of opening a pack, the adrenaline rush you get when negotiating a trade, or find it entertaining and have no intention of ownership or longevity, then what you read in the Terms and Conditions should not bother you.
You should be a baller in the digital card collection world. I’m not knocking it at all, to each their own - but I think people need to be informed about the devil in the details. Aaron Perzanowski, author of The End of Ownership: Personal Property in the Digital Economy put it quite elegantly in his interview with NPR as he explained how patrons are misled when clicking the ‘Buy’ button for digital content:
"One of the things that I think people don't realize that's crucially important is that DRM and related software tools are embedded in all sorts of devices that we buy. Your car, your smart home appliances, your home security system – all of these systems have software that allows for this kind of control over how the devices are used, and I think we're going to see these same sorts of situations crop up in the context of physical devices that are being used in people's homes. As this technology has been deployed what we've seen is that the big beneficiaries of DRM have not been copyright holders. They have been technology companies like Amazon, like Microsoft, who are able to control these ecosystems to make it harder for consumers to switch over to new platforms."
In speaking of ecosystems, collectible cards can be worth quite a good penny. The digital version is continually being praised for the ‘real value’ of the cards, which is problematic after what I just read. If people are dumping thousands of dollars investing in digital cards, I sure hope it is for the rush.
Will the Value of Digital Cards Hold With Real Money?
When real money, like obscene money, enters the equation - things get much more volatile. For example, Topps released 150 Mike Trout signature cards via digital packs. The packs were sold within ONE HOUR online at the price of 5,000 coins per pack. It is $100 for 900,000 coins. Topps made $12,000 in ONE HOUR.
Topps released its digital group in 2012 with several innovative, stunning features that rallied younger generations’ interests in collecting their favorite cards - and even creating them. The app is seen as a game (not a traditional collection) to be played by collecting:
So much more
The Topps website has instructions on How To Play by completing sets to earn awards, build collection scores, upgrade by combining cards, complete missions to unlock content, and make it a social game by following friends that share your passion. Coins to purchase digital content are earned by logging in daily and missions. This sounds fun as hell, but again, this doesn’t fit within the scope of traditional collecting but can be extremely lucrative.
Topps created Garbage Pail Kids (GPK) trading cards. In one of their series, “GPK Goes Exotic,” the cars sold out in 67 minutes to the tune of $204,800. Topps isn’t limited to baseball cards - there are several products. Topps also distributes Star Wars, Disney, WWE, and several other global brands. GPK is one of several products that are blockchain-based. According to Evan Vanderberg, Director of Business Development for WAX:
“That’s why the transition of physical collectibles, like trading cards, to the blockchain, is happening. Collectibles are a natural fit for technology like blockchain that makes trading easy and counterfeiting nearly impossible. Much of the value of a collectible is non-physical. We’ve noticed that once collectors learn about blockchain based collectibles, they realize these items possess all the properties necessary to convey scarcity, beauty and value, the attributes collectors seek. But blockchain collectibles also incorporate many additional attributes and functionality that are only possible with a digital object.”
Did I read that right? Can blockchain digitize sentimental value and provide the security of passing it down to my children...but Topps Terms & Conditions didn’t quite read that way. So, what is blockchain?
What Is Blockchain?
Blockchain is the record-keeping technology behind the Bitcoin network. Bitcoin is primarily operated by a Swiss company, the Tezos Foundation. The US FBI has the most significant Bitcoin wallet after shutting down an illegal operation and seizing the assets.
Blockchain is a database that stores information in small blocks that are chained together - hence the name. This is useful because it decentralizes information - no one group or person has control. The data can also not be reversed (immutable), so transactions are permanent and chronological.
To make it simple, several computers talk to each other and would have to agree on information for the information to be stored. This prevents tampering and fraudulent transactions and promotes transparency because everyone can see the transaction and trace its origins. This Bitcoin technology is applied to the distribution of digital content, such as collectibles.
Topps adopted blockchain to provide a secure marketplace within their apps for trade, purchase, and other transactions like sharing on social media and looking at wishlists for other traders. There is an exact list of ownership and transaction details. Topps utilizes WAXs services as the authority in digital clearinghouses in securing Topps digital assets.
WAX is the leader in Non-fungible tokens (NFT), which are digital assets that can be anything from sports cards to sneakers that are intangible and in digital form. WAX gives each NFT a unique identifiable fingerprint that makes your sports card different from everyone else’s, including the owner's (your) information, to establish a chain of title.
It is this unique identification system that revolutionized collectibles. Great database! I do love this concept, but that ‘you own nothing’ and ‘we have the right to erase everything’ still echoes in my head. I think the Topps Terms & Conditions would supersede how they hold and exchange information, just my opinion.
I’ve Been Wrong Before
I could be entirely wrong. Topps apps have been downloaded 9 million times. Last year, a Mike Trout autographed digital card sold for $550 on eBay. The Library of Congress has a digital collection available. Quite a nice one:
Their whole mission is to acquire, organize, provide access to, maintain, secure, and preserve collections. Who am I to say? I can see the reasons why a digital collection is ideal:
No storage space needed
Easily sorted and viewed
Instant gratification in trade and receiving goods
Earn coin & rewards to put towards purchases
Games are fun
eBay income possible
Kids can afford them, especially with coins earned
Variety of cards series with favorite characters
I understand the benefits and the fun of playing, playing being the keyword. You play games; you don’t play collectibles. Maybe I am just too old-school, and my square boat won’t float in digital streams. Yeah, I just did that; I find myself funny.
Seriously, there is a timeless beauty in physical holding and admiring the imperfections that hide in a baseball card. There is a pride in sitting down with my boy and going through card albums talking - those moments have places in my memory album.
Huddling around a phone would feel distant and impersonal - cold. Today’s screenagers have far too much disconnect as it is. Faces are always buried in phones. For me, I think I will stay fully engaged in the tangible because even my dark heart requires a bit of light.