Massive potential changes in the world of digital ownership started on its glacial pace towards becoming a reality last week. The High Court of Paris ruled on September 17th (reported in French by numerama.com, translation here) that consumers in the European territory are now within their rights to resell digital games purchased from Steam.
While the court has given Valve three months to update practically its entire operation to fall in line with the new ruling, Valve has been quick to react. Initially they argued that Steam was a subscription-based service which the court immediately and appropriately overturned. After the ruling came down Valve confirmed they would be filing for an appeal and in a statement given to Polygon a spokesperson added that “the decision will have no effect on Steam while the case is on appeal.”
Should this ruling be put into practice, it has the potential to change how the world treats digital goods, for better and worse. Even if one territory holds out and keeps operating as we do today, publishers of all digital media (games, movies, music, apps, books) will still have to change their business models to accommodate the territories where the law does exist. While that’s good news at first blush — giving consumers ownership of their digital media and the ability to resell them — it’s not hard to see how it could also go so very wrong.
As reactions were quick to point out on just one Reddit thread, this would turn your immense Steam library that you’ve been bragging about on social media into a treasure trove for hackers and scammers. Your Steam, iTunes, PlayStation, or Amazon accounts could become just as valuable as your credit card information. There’s also the damage it could do to small developers and publishers as cheap copies, indistinguishable from those at full price, would readily be available forever. Why would anyone buy new when there’s an instantly available and cheaper copy just a few clicks away?
Then there’s the possible reaction from content producers. With resale values cutting into new release profits we could be looking at many more always-online, game-as-a-service offerings filled with microtransactions and more hooks to keep players grinding away. Goodbye short or single-player games, hello MMO-Everything. And if you think the landscape of subscription services looks overwhelming today, wait until every company has reason to lock their stable of content up behind a paywall.
I’d love to say that all of this would make delistings a thing of the past but games would unfortunately still be at risk of disappearing. Just like today, once those supplemental profits from microtransaction-fueled titles dry up, or players move on to the next major release, the older games will be shut down sooner and sooner. It would also be incredibly hard for a ruling like this to mandate that previously delisted content be brought back. And games would still be removed from sale with the expiration of licensing or publishing deals, the terms of which could become even shorter as there would be fewer profits the longer a game is on sale.
This is still early days however and there is so much that needs to be defined about this ruling. I can’t imagine this all going into effect in three month’s time without becoming an immediate, potentially catastrophic disaster for just about everyone involved, industry and consumers. Don’t get me wrong, I approve of the idea of digital ownership but how it will work needs to be well established before we start things moving.