While it might seem like common sense that you can’t sell something that doesn’t physically exist, the option of selling used digital content obtained through services such as Steam or IndieCity is heavily debated in places like Germany. After a German court ruled that the trading of used software licenses is legal—and that the author cannot oppose resale—the Federation of German Consumer Organizations has decided to take up the flag and sue Valve for rights to sale used digital games…again. While that case will probably turn out well for Valve, it is curious to note how the company has a few double standards when it comes to selling games.
In the first place, Steam has been so successful because it sells games at a very cheap price and in flash sales. This prompts users to buy as long as the game is cheap. What Valve is actually selling is not the game itself, but a license to the game. It can be terminated and removed at any time if you break Valve’s TOS somehow. What’s more, you are required to activated most (if not all) of your licenses online before you can begin to play offline or in any mode. While it’s true that it is illegal to prohibit the sale of used games in Germany, the way that used game licenses are handled is in legal gray territory.
However, one thing is clear: it’s odd for Valve to be so inherently opposed to the resale of its own games. They are the market leader of PC games, as far as numbers are concerned, so it’s unusual that they wouldn’t try to tread new territory with used digital games. Valve could easily make a service to sell used digital game licenses that would integrate into Steam. They could make it so that all used games transactions profit the artist and service in some way, which would offset the disadvantage of allowing used games for them.
Unfortunately, no matter how they split up the service, it will always be broken. The problem with selling game licenses is that all licenses are inherently new. With physical used games, there is a risk involved—what if the disc has a scratch, or is glitched, or has parts of its manual missing? These are all something that consumers of used digital games would not have to worry about. They will always be able to download their game new, and if the price of the game is lower than ‘new,’ they would always be getting a discount by buying used.
Ultimately implementing a used-games policy for digital games that can be quickly downloaded in a ‘new’ state is difficult—if not impossible—to achieve. The best Valve could probably do is allow users to resell back to the Steam service, where they would theoretically sell it back as a ‘new’ license and take a profit loss. If everyone decided to sell their games at once, they might run into some money problems very quickly. The issue of digital used games isn’t a problem of whether or not Steam would profit on it, but how Steam would have to balance the inevitable loss of it. Increasing game prices or changing the entire service to a rental one, as opposed to a place you can buy digital games, is a solution that I don’t want to see any time soon on any of the digital services out there.