The distinction between “buying” a video game and “renting” a video game should be familiar to anyone who grew up in the era of Blockbuster game rentals. A rental came with limitations. You didn’t get to keep the game forever, most importantly; and you couldn’t modify it, or give it to someone else. But renting a game was cheaper, and perfect for 90s slumber parties.
Now, 83% of PC and console games are sold digitally1. Online storefronts like Steam, Origin, the Epic Games Store, and the PlayStation store use “Buy Now” buttons and shopping cart imagery to evoke the feeling of buying a physical product. But despite that appearance, the licenses and agreements that stores and publishers attach to their products means that what the customer gets is more like renting than buying:
“The Content and Services are licensed, not sold. Your license confers no title or ownership in the Content and Services.”
– Steam Subscriber Agreement2
“The Software is licensed, not sold, to you under the License. The License does not grant you any title or ownership in the Software.”
– Epic Games Store EULA3
“All content and software provided through PSN Services are licensed non-exclusively and revocably to you.”
– PlayStation Store User Agreement4
Most game retailers include similar language in their terms, outlining that licenses can be revoked, that reverse engineering and modifying is prohibited, and that sub-licensing is restricted. In other words, you don’t get to keep the game forever, you can’t modify it, and you can’t give it to someone else — a rental, with an unspecified termination date.
The licenses and DRM to enforce them often grant stores the ability to revoke access to a single game, or to a user’s entire library. Users could also lose all access to their software if the services that provide them shut down. Stores like Steam and Origin have made promises about releasing users’ libraries if they go out of business, but customers can’t legally rely on those. A company’s promises made while solvent are worth as much as the company itself if it becomes insolvent.
Retailers prominently using terms like “buy” or “purchase” in their storefronts to imply ownership, while also burying restrictions and revocability in multi-page license agreements, is misleading to consumers. A similar claim was made earlier this month in a case against Amazon for their “Purchase” button for movies5.
It would be a step forward for the US to follow the EU’s lead in extending the first-sale doctrine to software, which would expand a user’s ability to transfer or resell games. But this is only one of many traditional property rights missing in the licensing model of digitial goods. If retailers wish to continue to encumber purchases with restrictive terms, they must cease presenting their products as “purchases” and instead label them accurately as license rentals.