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Valve is Being Sued Over Second-Hand Games (There’s an eBook Angle)

2870256515_dede2c8735[1]Remember last year when a German court legalized the used software market?

Software platforms like Steam had an obligation to start working towards enabling users to resell the games they bought, but it seems that Valve (as well as other companies) are  dragging their feet.  This gaming giant is now being sued in by a German consumer organization.

The VZBZ (Verbraucherzentrale Bundesverbandes, try saying that 3 times fast) announced last week that they were suing Valve. According to their website they are suing over certain details in the Steam software license which forbid the transfer of software bought via Steam as well as the transfer of accounts. As they see it, a consumer pays full price for an app or game and yet only partially owns their purchase.

Valve is an important test case for reselling software because of the way Steam is designed. The games on Steam are tied to particular accounts and many require that you have an active internet connection before they’ll run. These technical limitations more than anything act as a block on a consumer’s rights to resell their purchases. Even if someone burned the game files to a disk and sold that the buyer still wouldn’t be able to play the game.

If similar cases are any guide, this case is expected to take years before a judge issues a ruling. The Oracle case mentioned in the above link was originally filed in 2007 and only decided last year.

So what’s the ebook angle? First, there’s the obvious part about Europeans now having the right to resell the ebook apps they buy (try telling that to Apple). But more importantly the Oracle decision covers a customer’s ability to resell a software license. eBooks are sold under similar licenses with similar limitations. Arguably the Oracle decision covers ebooks as well, though you’d have to find the right lawyer to argue that point in court.

And even if the Oracle decision doesn’t cover ebooks right now, it will soon. The new Epub3 spec includes details about how you can add interactive components to an ebook using Javascript or HTML5. Just to state the obvious, but these 2 programming languages are used to build apps.

Don’t look now, but you just added software to your ebook.

The interactive component of an Epub3 file is arguably software and not the usual text and images found in ebooks. It might take a court case to settle the point, but on the face of it you can resell an Epub3 file right now (in Europe). At the very least, once Epub3 becomes more common it will complicate matters.

Don’t you just love how new tech complicates existing problems as well as generating completely new ones? I do.


image by pdeonarain

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The Ogre February 4, 2013 um 12:59 pm

"The games on Steam are tied to particular accounts and many require that you have an active internet connection before they’ll run."

Of course it’s trivial for Valve to transfer most games (that don’t require external registration, anyways) between Steam accounts – it would just be a matter of removing a serial number from one account and moving it to another (obviously safeguards would need to be added, such as requiring email verification of the transfer from both involved accounts, but that’s also trivial).

Heck, with just a little effort, they could even add an automated market tied to the Steam Wallet (and take a cut out of each sale, of course): player lists the game, that doesn’t require an external account (getting publishers to go along would be amost impossible), with the price they want for it (before Steam’s brokerage fee kicks in), and then they sit back and wait (perhaps with game access temporarily disabled while it’s listed as opposed to being scummy and charging an up-front listing fee) for it to possibly sell.

Nate Hoffelder February 4, 2013 um 1:10 pm

Indeed. That’s exactly what I said Amazon could do with Kindle ebooks when this came up last year:

Stefan February 4, 2013 um 2:14 pm

Thanks for your article, Nate. Just a heads up: VZBZ is short for Verbraucherzentrale Bundesverband – "[nach] Auffassung des" means "according to".

Nate Hoffelder February 4, 2013 um 2:17 pm

Whoops. I thought it meant "association of" or something like that.

Olivier February 4, 2013 um 2:28 pm

"The games on Steam are tied to particular accounts and many require that you have an active internet connection before they’ll run. "

Considering we’re talking about a digital distribution service, that requirement is trivially fulfilled; you need to have an internet connection to download the game to begin with. In this case, it’s a red herring.

I can sympathize this being a potential bone of contention when buying software on a disc. however.

Olivier February 4, 2013 um 2:54 pm

Just to be clear, I was only addressing the "activate online" requirement. The "tied to a particular account" is indeed the crux of the debate.

Mike Cane February 4, 2013 um 7:17 pm

Annnnnd now this:

Amazon wins broad patent on reselling and lending ‘used’ digital goods

Nate Hoffelder February 4, 2013 um 7:18 pm

Saw that. Working on a post.

Used eBook Sales Still Blocked in Germany ⋆ The Digital Reader January 20, 2015 um 9:51 am

[…] the past few months VZBV has been fighting a legal battle similar to the one which they initiated last year over the sale of used computer games. The Verbraucherzentrale Bundesverbandes has argued that […]

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