Personally I find it much more interesting to ponder solutions over doomsaying and demanding things never change. So having had a shower and a ponder I think I might have a workable system that could well solve many of the issues we’ve discussed already.
For sake of clarity I’m going to work with the idea that digital licenses need to be treated the same as any physical goods. So the first thing we need to do is to separate the product from the service. Steam does indeed provide several services to the end user, chief among these being the distribution of the product but also updates, multiplayer servers and a whole host of other things.
As an owner of a software license you will be allowed the right to transfer said license, but you do not posses any rights to services rendered by steam and therefor can not demand those services to be provided to your 2nd hand license holder.
I don’t want to pretend like this only affects steam as this is about all software licenses and retailers of, but we’ll use steam as an example here.
So steam sets up a marketplace where you can sell your licenses, this might not even be necessary. When you put your license up for sale steam will require that you have the game downloaded to your system, steam will then package and encrypt the files that constitutes the product you own. You will also be provided with the key to decrypt and unpack the game and thus we have created an item to sell for which you, the owner, is fully responsible. You sell the game to someone and then you have to actually transfer the item to the new owner, how you go about that is up to you, this is not a service steam needs to supply.
Now compared to a couch this item could still be infinitely duplicable and we don’t want that, you have one license and one item to sell. So in order to verify that only the rightful owner can decrypt a copy of the package steam does supply a verification service. When you run the installer for your 2nd hand purchased game it will call for verification from steam, which will accept the decryption key generated only once and the game will then be installed on the new user’s system. It is up to the new owner to be mindful and take care of their installed copy as this is what they have purchased.
This wont work with some forms of DRM, wont work with steamworks for one. So as an addition or alteration of the system steam might allow you to register the license to your steam account but your license registry for that game will carry a note that makes it ineligible for redownload, maybe blocked from online multiplayer, maybe even not supplied patches automatically, possibly not awarding achievements, certainly not getting card drops and so on. But it will be in your steam library and still required to launch through steam. Steam could still offer the backup options for you that exists today but your local files will always remain your responsibility and the product you purchased.
I think this system would greatly reduce the risk posed by people hacking steam accounts in order to quickly dump all the games and steam items on the market and run away with the money. It would also greatly depreciate the value of a 2nd hand title as it would not be entitled to many of the services provided with a license purchased directly from steam. It would also make it quite bothersome for anyone trying to set up a rental system, since they would have to carry the distribution efforts themselves. Finally I think it would make buying a 2nd hand title more effort than it might be worth for a $15 indie game.
But your rights of ownership will not be infringed upon.
Please do let me know what problems you might see with this system and what we could do to assuage them.