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Mourning the end of the video game rental era

Amateur photograph of a Redbox rental station.
Enlarge / This image, like game rentals as a whole, is now a relic of a bygone era.

On Monday, Redbox confirmed to The Verge that it was “permanently transitioning out of the games business.” That means Redbox would remove the option to rent physical game discs from its thousands of self-serve kiosks (Redbox game sales will still be available through the end of the year).

For many in the United States, Redbox kiosks had been the only convenient way to rent games ever since rental mega-chain Blockbuster went belly up over the course of a decade (along with most of its smaller brick-and-mortar competition). GameFly still offers a rent-by-mail service, but that service’s monthly subscriptions and long postal wait times mean those loans are not much like just going down the street and paying a few bucks to sample a game for a few days.

Redbox’s decision to exit the game-rental market, just as the 2010s come to a close, marks a poetic and somewhat anticlimactic end to a practice that has been in a steep decline for well over a decade now. Like using a slide rule or blowing into a Nintendo cartridge, renting physical games is a practice we’ll harbor nostalgia for even though it’s not necessary anymore (assuming you have good-enough Internet access, that is).

A brief history of video game rentals

Video game rentals can trace their lineage back to the late ’80s, when stores that loaned out a flood of new VHS movies started adding NES software to their shelves as well. But while a movie studio could control when a theatrical release would hit the home video-rental market, video games could appear on rental-store shelves the very same day they were available for sale.

In David Sheff’s seminal history book Game Over, Nintendo of America’s then-chairman Howard Lincoln called this state of affairs “nothing less than commercial rape” for the video game industry.

I can spend thousands of hours and millions of dollars creating a game. I expect, therefore, to be compensated every time the thing sells. All of a sudden, out of the blue, comes a system that distributes my game to thousands of people and I get no royalty. The video-rental companies exploit the thing—renting it out over and over again, hundreds and even thousands of times—and I get nothing. The guy who developed the game and Nintendo get screwed. What does the guy who’s renting the cartridge contribute? What does he pay in terms of a royalty for the commercial exploitation of copyrighted work? Zip.

While a Japanese copyright law allowed Nintendo to prohibit the rental of its games in that country, the first-sale doctrine allowed such rentals to flourish in the United States. In 1990, the Computer Software Rental Amendments Act cemented the right to rent out console video games while also barring the rental of computer software (which is more easily copied).

Lincoln pushed for a compromise bill that barred console game rentals for a year after their release, but it died in legislative committee. Nintendo also tried to sue Blockbuster for copyright infringement over its use of photocopied game manuals in game rental boxes, but the case was settled out of court, and Blockbuster just started writing its own instructional copy for games instead.

Blockbuster's game-rental business got so big that exclusive versions of games like <em>Donkey Kong Country</em> were produced just for in-store rentals and competitions.
Enlarge / Blockbuster’s game-rental business got so big that exclusive versions of games like Donkey Kong Country were produced just for in-store rentals and competitions.

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