Friday, April 12, 2013

Used games

To start, I'd like to establish a few concepts which it is not my intention to dispute.

Intellectual property is good. I consider it obvious that many intangible things are extremely valuable to our society and it's important that the act of their creation is proportionally valuable.
False advertising is bad. If a media company misrepresents what they are selling, this is a clear breach of ethics and should not be tolerated.
Fair use is good. A group of friends or family should be allowed to share media without penalty.

Where I draw the line on "fair use" is when that media is sold for profit by someone who does not own the IP contained on it.

The concept of IP exists because without it you can't own data-- you can't own words or sounds or pictures or programming code, because they are not physical things. You can own an optical disc, but any argument for "ownership" of the data on that disc relies on the concept of intellectual property, which dictates that the creator owns it and has the sole right to allow people to use it.

In the case of game software, what buying that disc gives you is use of the game data, which your hardware turns into a fun experience for you. Not ownership, use. The data on that disc does not and never did belong to you, and paying for access doesn't give you the right to on-sell that access, because it's not yours to sell.

Thinking in terms of "use" rather than ownership makes it easier to understand that buying a game or a movie or a book is and always has been a service-- the service of the creator having created that IP.

We humans like to own things, and when it comes to IP, the media companies are all too willing to market the illusion of ownership. "Own it now on Blu-ray" is a tag line I pass every day in the window of the rapidly shrinking Blockbuster Video store near my workplace. So to be honest I don't have a lot of sympathy for the companies who are surprised when consumers reject business models which restrict our access to something they have spent so many years training us to think we "own".


  1. I see that a majority of your argument here is playing devil's advocate to the common belief of ownership, and that at the end you come back to acknowledge that in fact you don't feel sorry for those companies, but I have a hard time even getting through the whole "use, not ownership" without rolling my eyes.

    I'm going to admit ahead of time that I have no data and have done no research to back this up, but I'm going to go ahead and say:

    No one historically prior to this century ever suggested that end users don't own the products they purchase. When I bought a book, movie, or CD, no one suggested I couldn't resell it or loan it out.

    This whole revision of ownership only started when digital downloading became prevalent. Since then, the users have wanted to be able to resell finished digital games, but they had no format - no physical object - with which to do it. The companies had smartly found a way to put a stop to what EA once called "worse than piracy" - used game sales.

    Anyway, I, like you, don't have any sympathy for the game companies. I just refuse to acknowledge any legitimacy to their argument, as well. And so do the European Union courts, which recently ruled that end users do have a right to resell digital property.

    Great post!

    1. I'm not playing devil's advocate. This is what I believe is right. The value of IP is good for our society, and so needs to be protected. Actually, I'm a bit surprised that so many people have turned out to be so stubbornly attached to the idea of ownership.

      I think also a lot of the opposition to restricting used game sales comes out of an adversarial attitude towards big companies. They are bad so anything they want must be bad.

      Obviously the European law reflects a general consensus on the idea of data ownership being correct [or at least on companies being bad], but I still think it's wrong, and it's kind of a scary precedent for someone who would prefer that artists and creators be paid in proportion to their contribution to society.

      I also think that once the concept of digital property starts being enforced like this, all that will happen is that media companies stop "selling" digital products and instead use [much more correct] terms like "access" or "rental", just to get around this kind of abstract definition. Probably a good thing for correcting consumer expectations, but hardly the intention of the law.

      Though that said, if consumers rejected being told that they're only paying for access, it may end up making more business sense to take the hit of potential used sales just to continue selling the concept of ownership. Now that would be interesting.

      As an aside, my housemate and I share all of our Steam and console logins to play games the other has bought-- nothing is stopping fair use sharing of digital products. But I don't have any right to sell something that doesn't belong to me.

  2. Thanks for the reply! I'm still not convinced, though. I think for me it hinges a lot on two things. First is the idea that they put forth that "this is how it's been all along; you just didn't know it." I don't buy that for one second, and, frankly, it's insulting. The second is the language issue. If they've sold me a game, well, selling implies an exchange of commodities for money, not access to a particular product. There's other words for that: fee, charge, subscription. I buy (and thus am sold) a pizza. I pay a cover charge for access to a bar.

    Also, I'm while I agree that some people - often young people - fall into the whole anti-corporate frenzy of "EA is evil" and thus all game companies are and all they do is, but I don't feel that way. I just don't like what I feel is an attempt at trickery. If they called it access (which we're seeing now in regards to DLC) or renting, I wouldn't argue at all. But call it what it is, then. And if businesses did change their model to reflect that, I would completely respect it, and I doubt it would do much to game - uh - I can't say sales, can I? much to their profit margin, either, as I suspect most gamers would just continue to do what they do: pay money to play.

    Incidentally, I checked fair use - something I'm vaguely familiar with due to being an academic and using texts in my class - and I see nothing about the situation you describe. They all seem to be about research, commentary, and educational purposes. It seems that you're committing piracy, too, by all the definitions I've seen. More power to you (;

    Regardless, great conversation, and thanks!

    1. the idea that they put forth

      I put that idea forth. I'm not arguing for anyone else here.

      I didn't mean to imply that I thought sharing steam logins was legal. I might be misusing the term fair use.