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Here we'll explore the nexus of legal rulings, Capitol Hill policy-making, technical standards development, and technological innovation that creates -- and will recreate -- the networked world as we know it. Among the topics we'll touch on: intellectual property conflicts, technical architecture and innovation, the evolution of copyright, private vs. public interests in Net policy-making, lobbying and the law, and more.

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In the Pipeline: Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline

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July 23, 2013

Will Steam Be Sued Over Game Resale?

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

Rumor is floating around the game blogs that Valve, owner/operators of the massively popular Steam digital game store/platform, will be sued in the EU (specifically Germany, according to this story on Polygon.com) over their refusal to allow people to re-sell games bought on Steam. As we've discussed in the past, First Sale and similar doctrines do not apply to electronic media like games.

Companies like ReDigi have tried to make used marketplaces work for electronic goods partly by wrapping additional technology around the digital object in order to prevent more than one copy existing at a time. Clearly making a copy and selling that without the owner's permission is theft, but if you never make a new copy then perhaps it should be legal to re-sell your copy once you've legally acquired it.

Steam are in a somewhat unusual position here in that they are a major (in some markets dominant) service and platform for gaming. Valve does make some games - probably most famously Portal/Portal 2 but also several shooters like Half-Life and Counterstrike as well as the popular multiplayer Dota. But most of Steam's service and presumably revenue derives from its use as a sales and registration platform for third-party games. You can buy games directly through Steam, you can use game keys bought elsewhere to get a copy of a game off Steam, and you can even register your desktop-resident games with Steam. Steam provides automatic cloud backup for games and saved games, and gives you the ability to access your games from multiple machines - though only one at a time.

Steam has also developed a very light touch with DRM that has made it popular with players. If you are online, the game touches base once at launch with Steam to confirm everything is kosher; if not, it will warn you but generally not prevent you from playing solo.and it strongly encourages people to do the right thing with not spoofing multiple logins, rather than imposing harsh penalties (shades of The Art of Asking).

So in theory, Steam could set up a system that allowed people to transfer their Steam-purchased games from one account to another, effectively creating an online used-games market. In theory, that's a good thing, but practically it might not end up benefiting the people who would like to benefit from it.

Among its other functions Steam is also a massive online gaming store. We've just come through the annual Steam Summer Sale, which is a week-long event featuring dozens of titles offered at steep discounts. (I think I only bought five or six things this time; last year I kind of binged.) These discounts are made possible, in part, because Steam and the publishers do not have to compete with a used market. If you could always find a cheap (used) copy of a title what would be the incentive for the publisher and Steam to put it on sale? Remember these are digital goods - the cost of carrying "inventory" of these games is the cost of keeping a database of valid license keys, which is to say effectively zero.

Right now Steam competes with other online stores such as Green Man Gaming, EA, Origin, and Amazon. Adding a consumer-resale component to that would undoubtedly drive prices down but practically it might mean that fewer copies of games would be available at lower prices. When Steam puts something on sale cheap it does so with a large supply of license keys in hand - pretty much everyone who wants the game cheap can get it. In a used marketplace you'd be limited to the number of cheap copies offered by resellers - first buyers would get things for less money but everyone else would end up paying higher prices.

As TotalBiscuit called it in his commentary today, it is likely to boil down to principles versus practicality. In principle I agree there ought to be a market for used games - I see no reason why First Sale doctrine ought not to be extended to digital goods, provided we take reasonable steps to ensure no illegal copying occurs. But practically I don't see this meeting any existing market need. Steam and other retailers are doing a good job of offering lots of titles at really cheap prices, meeting consumer demand. Practically, I'm also a believer in "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" and I'm wary of situations like what happened with the e-book price fixing settlement where I feel the solution to the problem created an even worse problem.

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