Valve has come under fire from a French consumer association called UFC Que Choisir (slightly different from that other UFC). The organization litigates on behalf of the public, and they feel that Steam is letting customers down. I like what they’re trying to do, but I don’t love their chances here.
UFC Que Choisir believes that 12 clauses in Steam’s much-scrutinized Subscriber Agreement constitute breaches of consumer law. Their main points of contention, translated by Silencement, break down as follows:
-Steam’s Subscriber Agreement explicitly forbids users to sell their games, despite the transfer of ownership of digital products/licenses being legal
-Valve declines any responsibility in case they get hacked and users’ personal info gets stolen
-Valve claims ownership on the rights of any user-created content uploaded on Steam
-It is impossible to get the money on your Steam Wallet back if your account is closed/deleted/banned
-Valve applies Luxembourg’s consumer law regardless of the user’s country
Sounds pretty damning, huh? If UFC Que Choisir got Valve to concede these points, odds are they wouldn’t be able to just flip a few switches for France, specifically. Steam would be looking at some systematic changes. Problem is, most of UFC Que Choisir’s points don’t really hold water. Let’s break this down.
The first point—that people can’t resell their games—is a complex issue that hasn’t been solved in other mediums, and Valve already won in court against a German consumer group that filed a similar complaint. Valve expressly forbids the reselling of Steam accounts or games associated with Steam accounts. As for why, well, there are a lot of reasons.
At its most basic level, the issue is that physical goods are finite and digital goods can be as numerous as the stars in the sky, as manifold as Donald Trump’s selection of weird neck/jowl configurations. On top of that, in the current system we buy licenses to specific games under a larger Steam subscription—as opposed to individual copies of games themselves. This allows us to, among other things, download and re-download games to our heart’s content. It also means, however, that we don’t technically own the games we buy on Steam. We subscribe to them. As a result, our games are part of a service—not products we own.
Introducing the ability to resell would likely turn the current system on its head. Even if Valve implemented a feature that would, say, scrub a game from your account/machine and turn it back into a code you could sell, we’d be looking at a more or less infinite secondhand market. Because digital games don’t expire with use—like, say, keys you can sell on the Steam market—a relatively large number of people could pass around a few keys quickly and easily. The convenience is the biggest factor here. It might not seem all that different from the way a few friends might pass around a copy of a physical game, but the ramifications could be much greater because it’s all so easy and the potential audience is so much larger. On top of that, what happens when big Steam Sales enter the picture? It wouldn’t be difficult for people to buy up games on the cheap from developers/publishers, wait for prices to go back up, and then sell for a high price. I imagine that, in time, that’d cause publishers to raise the initial price of games, and Valve would likely need to cease Steam sales altogether. It’d be a big hit to folks making games, is what I’m saying.
That said, it might not be so bad. Microtransactions already help a lot of publishers deal with dual monetary damages caused by the brick-and-mortar secondhand market and piracy. If Steam were forced to implement some kind of resale system, we might just see more microtransactions and similar online features—a direction the industry’s already trending toward anyway. But, as more games go free and rely almost entirely on microtransactions, digital resale of games themselves becomes less and less relevant. Valve, meanwhile, already allows for the sale of some digital goods on the Steam marketplace.
Still, laws in certain countries (like France) stipulate that the transfer of digital software licenses is legal, despite what any single company might (try to) say. An EU law to that effect has been in place since 2012. However, Valve won the aforementioned case against a German consumer group in 2014. Games, as it turns out, may not be mere “software,” given that they can contain all sorts of music and art that fall under various copyright laws. On top of that, Valve has recently implemented game sharing and refund features that mitigate some of the inconveniences that emerge when people can’t resell games.
The short version? UFC Que Choisir’s chances aren’t looking great here.
UFC Que Choisir might actually have something with their second point, though. Valve declines responsibility pertaining to hacks when users bungle their own way into compromising situations—that is to say, when they get scammed by other users or duped by third-party trading sites. If an account is hijacked, however, Valve will sometimes make exceptions:
“Inventory restorations are granted on a case by case basis. In order for Steam Support to restore items, technicians will need to verify, using Steam’s internal data, that the account was hijacked.”
But what about an external hack of personal information, specifically? Well, a major Steam hack actually did happen back in 2011, and Valve’s report card there is... mixed. They waited four days to initially report what happened, but they tried to investigate the ramifications of the hack and informed users that they’d seen no evidence of credit card compromise. Unfortunately, it took them months to follow-up after that, and they found that hackers probably had gotten ahold of a lot of personal info, some of it encrypted. Ultimately, they advised users to stay on guard and use tools like Valve’s own Steam Guard security functions. It’s not clear what sort of steps they took to try and secure said data in the aftermath of the hack. So, in short, Valve responded to a hack by trying to clean up the mess, but they were slower about it than they probably could’ve been, and they left users in a frightening limbo. Classic shitty Valve communication. The whole episode wasn’t great. Since then, Valve’s implemented tighter security measures, but UFC Que Choisir isn’t entirely off the mark on this one.
When it comes to user-created content, Valve actually claims a non-exclusive right to your stuff, so you can still post or reproduce it elsewhere. Given that user-created content is often made within games Valve or their publishing partners own, that actually doesn’t seem like a terrible deal—especially since Valve gives mod makers a cut of the profit if they end up selling said items. A handful of particularly successful creators are even able to make a living off it.
The fourth point—the inability to get money on your Steam Wallet back if your account is closed/deleted/banned—sucks, but it’s also kinda a “them’s the breaks” situation. You turned that money over to Steam, same as you do when you buy a game or what have you. It makes a kind of sense that it’d vanish with all your games as punishment for breaking Steam’s rules in a way significant enough to get you banned. Admittedly, there are cases where account hijackers get people banned, and Valve’s notoriously shitty customer service takes weeks or months to respond. Until Valve convincingly clears that up, they’re not spotless here. All in all, though, the policy in itself isn’t super damning.
The last point—the bit about Luxembourg law—is flat-out wrong. In Steam’s Subscriber Agreement, Valve writes: “However, where the laws of Luxembourg provide a lower degree of consumer protection than the laws of your country of residence, the consumer protection laws of your country shall prevail.”
I’m glad to see this organization trying to fight for the rights of Steam users, but I feel like they’re barking up the wrong series of trees—or “forest,” as the kids are calling them these days. They’ve got one solid point and a bunch of weak/misinformed ones. Meanwhile, Valve has legal precedent (albeit in another country) on their side. They’ve yet to comment on how they plan to respond to the impending lawsuit.
All that said, would you like the ability to resell your digital games? What would need to happen to make such a system functional?
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