How a Supreme Court Ruling on Ink Could Impact Digital Games

A Supreme Court ruling on printer cartridges, of all things, could have big ramifications for consumer ownership rights, including that of digital goods like video games.

In the case Impression Products v Lexmark, the Supreme Court ruled that consumers have broader rights to do what they will with purchased goods than previously thought. Impression Products was one of many companies buying empty secondhand print cartridges, refilling them with toner, and then selling them to consumers. Lexmark argued that this violated its service agreement, and therefore violated its patent. Essentially, it was trying to control both the first point-of-sale and all subsequent secondhand sales. The high court ruled that it could not use patent law to enforce its sales.

Software like video games have long been in a strange limbo when it comes to ownership rights. That $60 purchase of Injustice 2 is actually only buying you a license to play Injustice 2. You don't own the software itself. This legal status was originally conferred regarding resales and to prevent users from having legal permission to alter a code and claim it as their own. But it's also created strange marketing disasters, like when Microsoft outlined its plans to bind Xbox One games to a single system and place restrictions on borrowing or resales.

Consumer advocates have argued for a "right to tinker" when it comes to all products, but especially the emerging market for digital goods. This ruling doesn't explicitly create a universal right-to-tinker, but Justice Roberts seemed skeptical of Lexmark's argument–which bodes well for future cases along the same lines. In his majority opinion, he drew a comparison to a used car shop, noting that it would be a burden on the economy if such businesses could be sued by car or parts manufacturers. 

This could set a precedent going forward for what consumers are permitted to do with the things they buy. Already the Electronic Frontier Foundation published a blog post celebrating the move as an important step.

"The Court explained that people who buy things are allowed to use and resell them without being sued under patent and copyright law, and explained that this freedom is necessary for commerce to function," the statement reads. "The next logical step will be for courts to recognize that people who buy digital goods are owners of those goods, not mere licensees, and can resell and tinker with their digital goods to the same extent as purchasers of tangible property."

[Source: Washington Post]

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