Sony's RFID Patent And Us

When I heard last week about Sony’s new patent, alarms rang in my head like a siren in some villain’s military base. It made for a worrisome start to 2013, a year believed to be the announcement (or even debut) of the next console generation. If you’re not sure why Sony’s potential tech is bad for us all, then let me share the reasons with you.

Use Permission Tag

The world of gaming news first got wind of the report via NeoGAF. On 12 September last year, Sony Computer Entertainment Japan filed a patent application in the US that, for all intents, would prevent the use of second-hand games.It does this by linking each game to either a console or user account. This means that anyone else wouldn’t have access rights and thus, wouldn’t be able to run the game. The side-effects are pretty obvious but I’ll get to that later. Right now let’s talk about how it works.


The “Electronic Content Processing System” is a suite of components that will authenticate every disk via RFID (radio-frequency identification). There’s more than one method outlined in the patent but they all achieve the same goal. As seen in the image above, the Use Permission Tag will communicate directly with the Reproduction Device, the part that processes the content read from the disk.

The system will obtain either “permission, temporary permission or rejection information” depending on what has been transmitted by the tag. Authentication is achieved by using the game ID with the console or user ID. This checking process can be skipped in later instances once the permission data has been stored.

Why It Exists

Part 32 on page 2 reads: “According to the present embodiment, realized is the electronic content processing system that reliably restricts the use of electronic content dealt in the second-hand market. [It is] similarly applicable to various kinds of electronic content such as an office suite, images, and music content.”

Simply put, the system is DRM (Digital Rights Management) in physical form. It’s no secret that publishers have battled piracy since the industry’s inception, but only in recent years did they bring the second-hand market into the fray. To them and their investors, both represent lost sales, something any company should take steps to address.


And so, where serial keys and online activation have failed in the past, Sony has decided to go straight for a hardware solution, one that eliminates most security bypasses save for hardware tampering itself.

At What Cost?

While publishers and pirates struggle on, my greater concern are the limitations legitimate owners will face with their own copies. Companies aren’t too fond of the second-hand market; they rather have you buy new copies, moving stock along and getting greater returns on their products.

Needless to say, the patented tech will put a stop to used sales in addition to third-party rental services. Even lending a game is now out of the question, which is a great shame since that is how I introduced friends to franchises on the console — they subsequently bought the sequels. However, the legality of selling your games is still up in the air (as is the idea of actually owning your digital properties) and to make matters more confusing, the laws differ between countries.


Public reception to Sony’s patent has been clearly negative. On the day of the publication, shares dropped by 7 percent for GameStop, a US company that makes sizeable profits in the used game market. What about local stores though? Many in Singapore offer a trade-in service for console games, whether for cash or store credit.

In an e-mail exchange, Qishan from doubted that any retailer would welcome the change since there would be an immediate loss in revenue. While some gamers may be forced to buy new games instead, not all will do so.

“Additionally, no technology is 100% free from manufacturing defects.” He explains that Sony’s new patent increases the chance of discs being defective, introducing ‘RF Tag failure’ to the list of potential disc errors.

“Depending on replacement agreements with distributors, retailers may have to bear the cost of replacements.”

The Future Of Consoles

Sony’s refusing to comment on the matter but whether the RFIDs end up in the next PlayStation remains to be seen, provided the patent is approved in the first place. However, according to a Kotaku article Sony does intend to restrict second-hand sales. An example given was that customers who purchase a pre-owned game will have to pay a fee to fully unlock the title, which sounds far more reasonable than a system that completely locks out a game you’ve bought.

Microsoft have also expressed an interest in curbing the used market with their next console, receiving a backlash from fans afterwards. The reason why these large companies are so eager to remove the competition (and not each other) is because the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 have been selling at a loss for all these years, depending on license fees from software sales to break even and earn a profit. This also explains why they’re trying to be marketed as home entertainment, with streaming services and casual offerings to widen their audience.


E3 2013 is now five months away. Microsoft has begun teasing their audience with a countdown timer on the Major Nelson blog, most likely for the big “720” unveiling. On the other hand, Sony has nothing of the sort, although we might hear something from Destination PlayStation, held in Arizona next month. As for Nintendo, they’ll be looking to expand their Wii U library in the coming months.

Will RFID permission checks be a staple in the video game industry? Do you have a better solution for them? We’d love to hear your thoughts since this is something that’ll have a direct impact on you. Let us know in the comments below!


Ade Putra

Ade thinks there's nothing quite like a good game and a snug headcrab. He grew up with HIDEO KOJIMA's Metal Gear Solid, lives for RPGs, and is waiting for light guns to make their comeback.