Good Luck in Court

I got myself into a mini spat with whoever is running @onlinekeystore twitter. Here’s a screenshot of what happened:

Soo… “good luck in court”, eh? I searched on google, and it looks like these are UK people who actually went through the trouble of offshoring their business to Singapore. No wonder they’re not worried trampling on people who can’t just hop over to Singapore and sue them there. Good luck in court, indie developer…

But even before that, I was in tears already at “it’s no crime to sell a game”. Take a hint dude: telling off a small indie dev does not make you a freedom fighter. We are not Microsoft, you’re not fighting the Man here. Do not try to portray yourself as something you’re not.

Your later protestations of “we are all for supporting indie development :-)”, and “[you are free to] contact us regarding contracts” tell me much more about you. And yes, that was an actual smiley there. That’s just hilarious. I have a kid, and I see playground bullies with more finesse daily at the actual playground…

As to why this is bad, if you can be bothered with the gory details, read on…

For some background, this is what happened: an online store I’ve never heard of before is selling our game (the DRM-free version). They don’t have a contract with us. They claim that they’ve bought the games legally and are now reselling them. I have no means to verify that, more so because they’re not an established distributor. There is zero risk of a backlash for them if any irregularities are found. And if I happen to have a problem with that, well… good luck in court!

Legally, they’re clearly in the wrong: the license prohibits them from doing this. More importantly, this is very bad for future prospects of DRM-free distribution. This is because the basis underpining DRM-free is trust. I trust my customers, therefore I don’t burden them with nasty DRM. I trust my distributors, therefore I trust them to account correctly for every single copy of the game sold.

As an indie, my contract with the distributor is just about the only leverage I have here: I can decide which distributor is trustworthy and which is not. And they’re all across the board, believe you me. But if a distributor is found to be scamming the devs, or not paying them or whatever; then the developers collectively have the power to not sign the contract with them. At the moment, it’s a system that seems to work and the games industry is remarkably well behaved in that respect.

Now, people from this “key store” and those similar to them are not accountable in this way.  They tell me that I am “free to contact them about a contract”, but only after the fact. What a smug way to take away your only means of protecting yourself in the market!

Also, your yuck-meter should be in the red on the “it’s no crime to sell a game” line. They’re waving the flag of “fighting the Man” alright, but they do exactly zero for indie games. They also likely undermine DRM-free distribution as such, which literally hinges on the unwritten contract between the developers, distributors and players.







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21 Responses to Good Luck in Court

  1. Hi

    Just to advise we buy the game retail which includes a serial code, the download we offer is available to anyone and is not DRM free


  2. tom says:

    I don’t understand what you mean by “not DRM free”. If you bought the game, you’d know that there’s no DRM. It only requires that you enter a serial key.

    More to the point, the license clearly states that you’re not allowed to do what you’re doing. If you want to be a legitimate distributor you should play by the rules and respect the law like everyone else.

  3. i buy the serials so i have the right to resell them end of story, i have contacted him and advised we can arrange something legitimately if he wants to receive a cut but thats all i can do really.

  4. Chris says:

    Wow, what a dick. I want to say thanks very much for Unity of Command (and the expansion), it’s a great game, and I was happy to buy it directly from your site. I especially appreciate your Mac support and I look forward to your future releases.

    Perhaps these guys need a (non-satirical) response similar to what happens in the classic IT Crowd anti-piracy spoof:

  5. no idea why everyone is referencing piracy, we pay full price thereby law of fair trade i am allowed to resell said game. If it was on ebay you wouldn’t even mention it and its the exact same thing. The file is the same demo file that is free on your own website.

  6. tom says:

    Two things:

    1. the “file” is really not the same as the demo on the website. The game installer will give you a completely different application (you don’t just enter the key to unlock the demo if that’s what you had in mind).

    2. you are not an individual customer selling this on ebay, you are running a full blown web store and are registered as a business in Singapore.

    If you want to be a professional distributor, you need to follow the law and show respect for rights of other people who make a living out of video games. Because these are DRM-free keys (i.e. NOT steam keys which are redeemable only once) you really must make a deal with the developer, otherwise the entire system of trust quickly falls apart as described in the post.

  7. ive tried but the developer is not interested, each install is useless on its own therefore is not DRM-FREE as it requires a serial code.

  8. VCosta says:

    Oh, wow!
    Onlinekeystore, you’re nothing but a groveling little Weasel.

  9. If Online Key Store are just reselling serial keys taken from retail copies of the game, then the developer has already been paid. I see no problem here.

  10. Mark C says:

    I think the issue here is from a misunderstanding of what online key store actually do. They aren’t selling the files to your game, they are just selling the unique key, taken from a retail copy of the game they bought (presumably using bulk discount/weak exchange rates to be profitable).

    If online key store bought these bulk, cheap retail copies of the game and sold them (as new and sealed copies of the game), and sold them to people (physically shipping the boxes), would any issue be taken with that? This is in effect what they’re doing, just without physically shipping the box and disc.

    Also, Serial checks are a form of DRM.

  11. tom says:

    I do *not* have a problem with re-selling of “legitimately bought keys, taken from a retail copy of the game”.

    I *would* have a problem with some other possible situations, e.g. a distributor getting a single legit key and then selling it many times over.

    My point is there is no way to know which is which.

    This is why we have contracts, they are there to protect developers from unethical distributors. If we allow distributors to bypass this obligation, that disempowers indie developers. Nothing to do with whether you can resell your physical copy of an EA game. All to do with whether distributors should be accountable directly to developers (or anyone for that matter).

  12. Correct, there isn’t any real way to know for certain if Online Key Store are just selling gutted retail serials, but this is how the vast majority of serial resellers I am familiar with operate.

    It sounds to me like one of the distributors you have a contract with is then selling on the serials to Online Key Store. Perhaps you should develop a mechanism for finding out which of the distributors is supplying Online Key Store, and end your arrangement with that distributor if they don’t agree to stop.

    But this would not be happening if you weren’t engaging in regional pricing discrimination, it’s a (predictable) outcome to your decision to sell your digital product for different prices in different regions. If customers were charged the same no matter where in the world they live, Online Key Store would be unable to buy cheap serials in one region to resell with a margin on top to customers in another.

    Online Key Store have no contract with you, why would they not resell your serials when there are distributors willing to supply them with serials, and customers willing to buy them?

  13. Online Key Store *wouldn’t* be unable to buy cheap serials in one region

  14. tom says:

    This is just absurd Lewie.

    We don’t “engage in regional pricing discrimination” (as if that would somehow delegitimize us in the first place). To the contrary we tick every single gamer-friendly box there is: we have a demo, we’re reasonably priced (especially compared to other wargames), we discount often and we don’t use intrusive DRM.

    This “regional pricing issue” is just a complete strawman. Not sure why you’d bring it up to be honest.

    On the other hand, my central complaint is about the lack of accountability and you didn’t address that at all.

  15. I’m happy to be wrong regarding regional pricing discrimination, I was assuming that they were undercutting your worldwide price by purchasing from regions with a lower price. This is how most serial resellers operate.

    Perhaps regional pricing discrimination doesn’t apply in this instance, but serial key resellers do provide a valuable function for consumers by letting them bypass regional pricing discrimination when it does occur, and their existence exerts market pressure on publishers and developers to not exercise excessive regional pricing discrimination. This is good for consumers.

    I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want consumers to have a choice about where to buy your game from. I can understand your concerns about Online Key Store’s supply chain, but if they are simply reselling serials taken from retail copies of games, they are providing a valuable service.

    You said “If we allow distributors to bypass this obligation…”. I think the relevant questions is actually: How do you intend to prevent them from bypassing this obligation? Because I would suggest that it’s not possible.

    I think fighting unauthorised redistribution of your licenses is similar to fighting piracy. It will be more effective to understand that you can’t prevent it, so integrate it’s existence into your marketing and business model. You might find how they operate to be distasteful, but I think you should consider doing some sort of distribution deal with Online Key Store and similar retailers.

  16. Robert says:

    Hi Tom,
    first of all I have to say that the communication of Online Key Store was very harsh and arrogant. On the other hand I do agree with them that if they are reselling the keys from a retail copies then it should be OK and they need no contract with you as you are already paid through a distributor who provided the retail copies to the Online Key Store.

    I should be able to track the source of the serials and all you need to do is to buy one game from the Online Key Store. Based on the serial you will identify the distributor and can take measures, right? 🙂 If it is confirmed that the distributor is a real partner and the serials are not a single legit key then I would suggest that you do not need to make contract with the Online Key Store and just leave them to resell your game.
    I have a friends here in Slovakia who are running also an online shop selling game keys (STEAM, Origin,…) and frankly put without the distributor you can’t do much.
    PS: What are the plans for the next expansions and map editor?

  17. tom says:

    @Lewie, if you’re telling me to shrug this off because it’s not enforceable then you’re not telling me anything new.

    Still, I don’t think an actual games journalist endorsing it is such a great idea. And from RPS, no less… no wonder this dude thinks he’s Robin Hood :-/

  18. tom says:

    @Robert if these were Steam keys, there would be no issue. Steam keys redeem exactly once and a scam would be uncovered instantly.

    With simple CD-keys however, a scam could go on forever. If the burden of proof is on the developer (Regional pricing-er! He brought it on himself!) then the scammer would be virtually untouchable, hidden as he typically is behind an off-shore company.

  19. the problem here is that nobody seems to really understand the meaning of DRM FREE or a retail serial code.

    DRM FREE means you install the game and thats it, literally you have the game there once installed and nothing else is needed, thats real DRM FREE.

    Reselling of a retail cd key bought from a retail store is completley legal 100% and anybody can do it. The files do not function on there own as it requires a legitimate serial key to play the game, making the need for a serial the DRM.

    This developer already has their cut from the initial retail purchas ei made, now he is asking me to remove it so i of course refused on the basis they have no grounds to remove ownership of a game i bought retail.



  20. well just to keep you happy decided to change product type to steam, now you can all get off my back


  21. tom says:

    That will have to do, I suppose. I will also take this opportunity to lock the thread and move on. I’ve got better things to do than play someone is wrong on the internet.

    I’ll be setting comments to “off” in about 24hrs from now. If someone really really needs to add something, you can do so while they’re still open.



    UPDATE: locked, Tue 2013-07-23.