Why Used Games Are Nothing at All Like Piracy, Even for Developers

This post has been edited by the GamesBeat staff. Opinions by GamesBeat community writers do not necessarily reflect those of the staff.

Arguing about used games is like stepping into the ring with your best friend. You don't want to fight; but when he decides ear biting is perfectly acceptable, you have no choice. Maybe now you'll have a story to finally break the ice with Evander Holyfield.

So in steps Penny Arcade with last week's rather inflammatory comic "Words and Their Meanings":

It's a childish argument. We could take the strip's logic one step further and point out that — technically — we're not customers of THQ when we buy new, either. We're still customers of GameStop (the retailer who purchased the new copies from the publisher). But all this hoopla over the definition of "customer" misses the point and sidesteps the real issues at hand.

Tycho's accompanying editorial is where the fighting gets really dirty. He writes, "[...] I honestly can't figure out how buying a used game was [sic] any better than piracy. From the the perspective of a developer, they are almost certainly synonymous."

That is quite possibly the most dishonest argument one can level in the used-games debate.


The distinction between used games and piracy is starkly obvious, and let's not forget that. Publishers would like you to believe that buying used is no different than copyright infringement, and Tycho's not doing us any favors by conflating the two in his comic.

The fact of the matter is that the developer did see money from that used copy when the first buyer doled out hard-earned cash for the game. The developer sold the product, and therefore, no longer owns that particular copy. The first-sale doctrine guarantees your right to ownership, which includes the ability to lend, giveaway, and (yes!) even sell any lawfully made copies.

The next swing will come at you like this: "But the used purchaser didn't give money directly to the developer or publisher, and he'll still use up expensive support resources!"

Obviously, we're not thinking this all the way through. If Alice sells Bob video game X, Alice no longer owns X; therefore, Alice no longer draws resources from the publisher in the form of technical or multiplayer support. Bob does, because Bob now owns X.

From the publisher's standpoint, what difference does it make whether Alice or Bob owns the game? The cost of support should stay exactly the same. In other words, the secondhand market cannot increase support costs because used games don't add extra copies into the pool.

Piracy, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. If Alice lets Bob make a copy of game X, then they are increasing support costs for the publisher because they've illegally added to the pool of available copies.

The final, knockout-hopeful punch will probably look like this: "Bob could have bought the game new."

But Bob didn't. Why? The obvious answer is because Bob found the new-game price point unacceptable, so he chose the lower-cost option. Take away Bob's ability to buy used games, and he won't magically have more money for new ones. In reality, he'll probably not play it at all. Is that good for developers? I don't think so.

This is why conflating used games with piracy is completely and utterly dishonest. I'm amazed that such rhetoric can sway normally intelligent and insightful individuals.

I'm no stranger to this debate. I think used games are important to the industry as a whole, and I think the secondhand market is crucial to the sale of new games, too.

The bottom line is that not everyone can buy games brand new all the time — I know I can't. Few of us have the disposable income to support that kind of behavior. But the more titles we play, the more invested we become in video games in the long term. We become more likely to seek out obscure information and recommend memorable experiences to our friends. The used market makes this greater participation possible for a lot of us.

I'm certainly interested in the discussion surrounding secondhand games. One-time use codes? Let's debate them. Project Ten Dollar? I'm ready to argue.

But once we step down the road of equating used games with piracy, we've taken a dive in the ring. And no one wins in the end.

Update: For clarity, I've added "[...]" to indicate that I've partially referenced Tycho's quote in this article.

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