Sunday, November 07, 2010

Is free Xbox game a fable?

For two hours on a Friday in mid-October, alert fans of the Xbox game Fable II were treated to a surprise. On Microsoft’s Xbox Live website, the complete game that is supposed to cost $19.99 to download was offered for “free” on the site.

Word got out and was tweeted with abandon to fans — but within two hours, Microsoft issued a statement that it had heard reports of the freeness of Fable II, but that the correct price was $19.99, and the Xbox Live website was corrected.

K.G., a reader from Worcester, Mass., who is a console game aficionado, wondered about the ethics of taking advantage of what appeared to have been a pricing error.

He informs me that he didn’t buy the game at any price, “free or otherwise.” But had he known about the error in time he says he “certainly would have downloaded it for free — and part of me feels guilty for that!”

“If I were shopping in a retail store and the clerk forgot to charge me for an item, I would bring it to his attention and expect to be fairly charged for it,” K.G. writes. “When it comes to a digital product instead of a physical one, the situation somehow seems different. Is taking advantage of an online store’s mistake akin to theft? Do I have a responsibility to not partake of such an error?”

The parallel between a retail clerk forgetting to charge for an item and a software company posting an errant price for a product doesn’t hold up. In the retail setting, you’re likely to see all of the physical products as well as the prices being keyed into the register. You also receive a printed receipt itemizing the goods you bought and what you paid for each of them. But in the online situation, there was no way for anyone to know that the Xbox game should have been priced differently. It wasn’t like a vending machine that dispenses soft drinks for half the posted price. In other words, there was no way for the lucky few who found the free Fable II offering to know it was a mistake.

“Yes,’ K.G., responds, “but now that they know, do they have a responsibility to do something about it?”

K.G. raises an interesting point: If we find out after the fact that we were the beneficiaries of something that turned out to be the result of someone else’s error, are we obligated to somehow make things right for the person or company that made the error?

In cases where it’s clear that a mistake has been made — a bank inadvertently registers a deposit greater than the amount you gave it, a clerk puts an item or two in your bag without ringing it up — the right thing is for the buyer to bring attention to the mistake and make things correct.

But in cases where there is no way to know that a mistake has been made — as was the case with the mispriced Xbox game — the lucky customers have no obligation to make up for the seller’s apparent mistake.

As it turns out, the error ended up creating great buzz for the Fable II game, which, interestingly enough, coincided with the release of its follow-up, Fable III. Sometimes it’s difficult to know if an apparent mistake is just a deliberate marketing maneuver in disguise.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today’s Business, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Whether it is an error or a marketing error, the vendor is obligated, by law, to provide the item (or service) at the advertised price - in this case, free. As business owners, when we have discovered that we inadvertently undercharged for a contracted service, all we can do is try to be more careful in the future.