Do We Own Our Steam Games?

What do you own? Looking through my possessions, I feel fairly comfortable that the food in my fridge belongs to me. And I have an odd confidence that the hardware in my PC is mine. But the books on my shelves? I seem to have very little rights over them. The CDs stacked up in a cupboard (remember CDs?) certainly aren't my property. And the software on my computer may as well be tied to a long piece of elastic, just waiting for the publishers to give it a tug. You own a licence. But a licence for what?

This lack of ownership becomes even more concerning when it comes to the digital space, at which point our rights to anything become extremely ambiguous. And that's something that can bite you hard on the bum, when places like Steam seem to reserve the right to ban you from your account, and not even tell you why they did it. Below is the story of one RPS reader who says he lost access to his entire Steam collection, and thoughts from game lawyer Jas Purewal on whether we really own any game we buy.

We've heard some very stupid banning stories from EA, and as many as we've reported, we've heard dozens more. But the odd thing is, EA tends to tell the bannee what ridiculous reason they've assigned. That's something RPS reader ‘gimperial' alleges he discovered Valve wouldn't, after he had his account banned. An account that had over 250 games, with well over £1000 spent.

Gimperial's case wasn't clear cut. He's in Russia, and openly admits that he's gifted games to people in exchange for money, to help them get them cheaper. Not frequently, and it's certainly not something Valve could have known he had done when they banned him. And he states that he mostly gifted games for free, just as a favour. He acknowledges that gifting in exchange for a financial payment is against Valve's TOS, and doesn't protest innocence. But the strange thing is, while Valve wouldn't tell him what he did to receive the ban, he says they did tell him that it wasn't because of gifting.

Instead he received a message informing him he'd violated Valve's Steam Service Agreement (SSA). Questioning what aspect of this he'd violated, as he could find nothing he'd done that matched up, he received a response with just a copy and paste of the exact same SSA, and the news that

"We will not be able to help you further with this issue."

They then ignored tickets he sent, trying to get clarification. Attempts by him and his friends to contact Valve directly, including emailing Gabe Newell, also didn't receive replies.

Oddly, gimperial had his account suspended over Christmas because Valve were concerned it had been hacked. Once he assured them it had not, and he was the one purchasing, they apologised and reopened his account, telling him — says gimperial — that they would put a note on his account to prevents its being suspended again. gimperial claims they told him,

"If you are going to make large amount of purchases again, please reply to this ticket so there are no issues with your account in the future."

And replied,

"I will make a note of it on your account."

You can read the full exchange here.

Because Valve cannot have known that gimperial had gifted in exchange for cash (and he insists that most of the time it was genuinely as a gift, and often just in exchange for a beer), that cannot be the reason for the ban. And if it had been their suspicion that he was doing something like this, the normal practice is to issue a warning, not to just shut off the account. And it's especially of note that gifting for money is not mentioned in the SSA.

On Sunday I emailed Valve to ask about this case, drawing their attention to the forum thread, and to ask what their policy is for issuing bans to accounts.

"Is it Valve's policy to refuse to explain to customers why their accounts have been banned?

Does Valve think it reasonable to permanently withhold access to a customer's purchases without offering the appropriate refund?"

As of Tuesday lunchtime, I have still not had a reply. However, late yesterday, gimperial received an email from the Valve tech support op who had told him they wouldn't help him any further, saying they would be looking into his case once more. And this morning, gimperial has found that his account has been restored, with access to his 250+ games returned. However, he has had his trading privileges permanently suspended.

Well, suspended until 2022, it seems. So gimperial won't be sending out gifts any more.

So this story has a sort of happy ending, and gimperial would be the first to say that this result is fair. Clearly there's confusion, gimperial saying that Valve previously explained that his gifting was fine. The ambiguity is unhelpful, and certainly a cause for concern from any philanthropic sorts who might take it upon themselves to do something lovely like buy a game for everyone on their friends list. The idea that just the suspicion that extensive gifting is enough to have you account banned without explanation, isn't one that sits comfortably. And hopefully Valve will soon get back to us with answers to the questions we've asked.

It's also worth noting that had Valve not chosen to get back to gimperial, which only happened after we'd contacted them (although of course this could be a pure coincidence), he'd be stuck, and have nowhere to go but lawyers. When Steam's meagre customer support refuses to respond, there's no phone number to call (the one that exists redirects you back to email), no manager you can reach. You're just shut out, seemingly unless you can cause enough fuss on the internet.

Once again drives home a crucial thing to understand. You do not own your games. Whether bought through Steam, Origin, or any other digital download service that requires a live account to play them, you are at best renting those games, with no guarantee that you'll be able to continue to do so. And those bans can be issued without a stated or proven reason — it's in the agreements you click "Agree" to when you sign up an account, or buy a new game.

But is that legal? I asked gamer lawyer Jas Purewal about this a short while back, not specifically about Valve, and he explained that the matter is still unresolved. "In fact," he says, "it's never been completely resolved for software generally — at best, we have some guidance to follow." But he explains that the commonly taken position is that when we buy a boxed game, we own the DVD, but only have a licence for the software on it. "A ‘licence'," Purewal explains, "is essentially a limited personal right to use the software on certain terms and conditions — it doesn't give you the right to e.g. sell/transfer/copy/reproduce the software."

Of course, when we have a physical object, we do just about have the right to sell it second hand (something publishers are of course doing their best to scupper, taking away perhaps even the vestiges of ownership that we have of the plastic). But in the world of the digital, that right is obviously absent too. And indeed this comes with the ability to cut off your access to the game, even though you paid for it. Purewal says this adds even more focus onto the licenses that come with the games, usually the EULA. And where does that leave us?

"Is a EULA subject to consumer protection law? Yes. Has that been tested in a court yet? No, although as a very broad summary it requires a company who sells to consumers to act ‘reasonably' towards its customers. Nor have governments/regulators definitively stated their position regarding consumer protection regarding digital content yet (though that is already beginning to change, certainly within the UK/Europe). So we don't know the exact extent of consumer protection law regarding games — although developers/publishers generally do try to comply with the law insofar as they are able."

But when it comes to answers, there are few. Pointing out that consumers tend to want to actually own something, Purewal also points out that publishers are pushing ever harder in the other direction.

"All this could have a big impact on the ‘ownership' question. Would gamers care about ‘owning' a game if they had very reliable, maybe cloud-based gaming controlled by rules that they understand? Would a publisher? If a publisher gives a gamer a right to return or exchange a digital game via a fair system that the publisher controls, would it really matter to gamers that they can't sell the game through any other means?"

Of course, in the case of Steam, or any of its counterparts, this is a somewhat different situation. Steam isn't a publisher, it's a shop. This is the equivalent of being suspected of shoplifting from a GAME/GameStop, and having an employee come to your house and remove your entire gaming collection from your shelves. Individual publishers of the purchased games aren't consulted for a Steam ban. This is Valve overriding all those individual licenses with their own, and removing access to your purchased goods. And, despite there being no legal position yet known, that doesn't seem right at all.

It's a little frustrating to realise that the answers to every question are, at this point, "We don't know." Can Valve legally ban you from accessing thousands of pounds worth of games you've purchased? We don't know. Can EA really stop you from playing online games because you said a swear on their forum? We don't know. And infuriatingly, the only way we're ever going to find out is when it happens to someone rich/supported enough to take it to court. In the meantime, it seems that publishers are taking advantage of the ambiguity to write their own laws in the form of EULAs and other agreements, whether they could survive the test of a court or not. And that's always worth bearing in mind when you consider what you actually own.

PS. We held this story back a day to give Valve a second chance to respond to our questions, but once again replies came there none.

John Walker is a writer for Rock Paper Shotgun, one of the world's best sites for PC gaming news. John is Britain's leading adventure gaming specialist. Follow him on Twitter.

Republished with permission from Rock, Paper Shotgun.


Comments

    If my Steam account were ever banned without explanation I'd be cracking each and every one of my games. That would ensure they're mine and mine alone.

      100% agree Quirkhall. Steam is simply the 'shop' that facilitates the transactions. The 'no explanation' rule they have surely cannot be legal. I would love for someone someday to challenge a publisher (or Valve) regarding ownership of digital media.

    No, you don't 'own' most media you purchase. The closest you get to having rights to things you purchase is through DRM free services such as Good Old Games in which no matter what happens (service closes down, publisher bites it) you can still install and play they games you've purchased and downloaded in previous.

    DRM free should be the future.

    Perfect article about why not to use any digital distribution service until they sort the legal ends of this stuff out!
    The only drm i will put up with is cd key/serial with a single online check and no activation limits.It proves i bought the product and that is that.
    If they want me to agree to any more terms than those, the price of this stuff needs to drop significantly.

      Even a physical version isn't much protection from it, how many PC games now require you to be logged into Steam/Origin/GFWL now, tying the CD key to those accounts?

      Get the account banned and you've got yourself a $60 drinking coaster.

    It is a scary thought, having your collection suddenly taken away with nothing you can do about it.

    It's almost enough to make you want to get ahold of a pirated version of every game you buy, just as a backup plan.

      That's why there should be a push towards DRM free games. DRM has been proven useless time and time again, almost every game is 0-day cracked and games that aren't cracked the day they're released are cracked within a week post release.

      DRM is an inconvinience to customers, all devs and publishers should go the CD Projekt way...DRM free..

    Steam is for morons, always was.

    this is why they dont like piracy, cause later on there gonna take all that stuff back, however if you pirate its urs for ever

    just buy the games on disc

      And then install and activate them on Steam and/or GFWL?

    While I don't agree with Steam's "no explanation" policy (this is at the very least immoral), I believe that they have the right to disallow you access to their service if you abuse it. The fact that this results in disallowing access to any and all purchased games is going a bit far, tho - allow access to them, but disable any online features (no multiplayer, no chat, no cloud saves, etc) and no further installs on other systems. Unfortunately, game licensing is somewhat inbuilt into Steam, so it's unlikely that they'll ever do this.
    What they can do, though, is improve their communication policy.

    Whilst I believe Steam may have the right to disable your continued use of their service, they should NOT have the right to prevent you from accessing licenses you purchased legally and have abided by the terms of. And they absolutely do not have the right to disable your access to them without specifying the breach with more than a "you have violated our SSA. Sucks to be you"

    It is interesting and there was a breakdown of the Steam EULA on Australian Gamer a while ago.

    I think a whole segment of gaming history may go the way of the dodo; I had bunches of games of 3.5" floppy for the PC, Amiga and Atari ST. The disks are mostly unusable now when I try and fire them up and they have copy protection on a fair few of them which means I couldn't transfer them to another medium for backup.

    I have a lot of Singstar discs on the PS2; this console won't last forever, so what to do when the console dies in maybe 5 years time if I'm lucky. Second hand ones will be a war of attrition... they are likely to be unplayable from that point. As far as emulation goes. consoles like the Saturn, Dreamcast and PS2 are still not 100%, especially on the PC I have, so I am not holding out much hope for emulation. The Amiga, for example, has only really been properly emulated for the last few years.

    It does seem that even with physical media, games are only with us for the briefest of times given the constraints with constantly shifting hardware and DRM.

      Meanwhile I fired up my Master System II the other day, and despite needing a little sorcery to get it to read cartridges, everything worked fine.

      I don't think I'll be able to say the same thing about my 360 in 20 years time.

        With the uprising of Online Passes don't expect any games to run in MP..

          And thats a shame as all MP games should first and foremost have a local MP component. Then that way no matter what you could still play with friends and family in your own place. Then as bonus online component, because the online part can be tunred of by the pub/dev at any time without notice and you have lost a major part of why you paid for.

    Yet again, the pirates have it easier than legit customers. Why do we do it again?

    It's worth noting that most digital collections use the same line of thought, they get you to combine all your games into one account. Then leave a clause in the TOS that states "Your account may be banned at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all".

    Recently read the Battle.NET TOS when they updated it, and it was there. Seems very shifty that they are allowed to do this, considering they push you to combine everything into one account (and hey, let's face it. It makes things easier) and then if you or an unauthorized person does something they consider breaking EULA/TOS or a Blizzard rep is having a bad day and decides to just ban you from your account--they can, and you agreed to it.

    And it's not just ban the one account the infringement occurred on, it's ban the entire lot, regardless of the game.

    This is all very well, but owning a game is only a means to consuming it. a game isnt furniture, its purpose is to be enjoyed. and if you finish a game , the main function is complete. i really dont have any interest in 'collecting' as such. the experience matters more than the item itself- that said, i still want the security of my money buying something completely, not in some legally grey, amorphous sense. and i still think digital distribution rules.

    Just a note, i think it's not fair to suggest a blizzard rep having a bad day can ban an account.
    Having dealt with the blizzard support staff enough, i can say with certainty it would not be possible, everything has multiple review layers.

    Worse-case scenario, you can just chargeback if you used Paypal.

    The kid knew he was being bad, they only caved because you got involved. This is not news.

      Being bad is not the issue here, it's the penalty involved. Steam should not be able to remove access to $1000s worth of games that were legitimately purchased regardless of how "bad" he was. Sure, remove access to purchasing any more games and prevent any multiplayer etc - but you have to be fair with punishments. As the article said, it would be like an employee of a shop coming to your house and taking away all your previous purchases.

    Being heavyhanded is completely ridiculous, because it will push people to piracy.

    Interesting, if not disconcerting, read.

    This is the sort of action that causes old men to ram their cars into banks, or go postal...and it's the sort of shit that makes me not care when people do those things when they have been treated this way.

    the only reason i have a steam account is because of counter strike

    but this is ridiculous, if i pay for a game, then i will do whatever i want with it, be it modding it, cracking it or whatever else

    i'll put reference to your work but you don't own what i have paid for

    Sorry if I'm just a bit skeptical but, doesn't Steam have an offline mode? Also, the closest thing I've ever heard to something like this is a VAC ban to a friend on TF2 who, may-or may-not have deserved it, and a friend getting a trade ban for using an exploit. Full lockdown of games seems a little unlikely.

    Maybe I'm naive, but while I know I don't own my PSN, XBLA, or iOS games, I feel a sence of ownership over my Steam titles.

      Steam's offline mode isn't nearly as useful/flexible as you'd imagine it to be. In order to play games in Offline Mode you first must be connected to Steam, then choose "Go Offline" from the menu and then wait for Steam to restart in Offline Mode. If you simply find yourself in a place where you have no Internet access then you won't be able to launch Steam or any associated games unless you selected "Go Offline" beforehand.

      Because of this I've made it a habit to always select "Go Offline" when I shut down my laptop before going on any trips.

      It's a pretty backwards process.

        That's not true. Save your password, log on once. Then you can use offline at will... give it a go.

          That's what I assumed and was told before I actually tried it. Never worked that way for me.
          I actually did it last night as I shut down my laptop because I'm going somewhere tonight, and when you choose "Go Offline" in the Steam dropdown menu it describes Offline Mode as a mode you should activate if you 'plan on going somewhere where you can't connect to the internet or anticipate that you won't have access to the internet' (obviously, not a word for word quote, but that's the gist of what it said)

          Otherwise when I start Steam and it can't connect it will ask if I want to start in Offline Mode, and after clicking yes (if I didn't do it beforehand as stated above) it will say "Couldn't connect to Steam Servers. Please connect and activate Offline Mode." :-P

          I do this pretty often.

    Excellent article. This is the reason I tea Kotaku.

    I wonder what the Australian legal system makes of all this? I'd be going to Consumer Affairs if Steam locked me out and only gave me templated responses.

    Not only does this highlight the issue on if we actually "own" the games we've paid money for, but also the pathetic customer service Steam has. Everyone praises Steam and Valve for pretty much everything they do, those people probably haven't had to deal with their e-mail only template driven customer service. Now THAT kind of thing should be illegal.

    This is why I have no Steam account, I don't buy ebooks, or mp3s. I like my physical products that I can continue to access even if digital support for them is severed in the future.

    This is why digital software is terrible. You get no physical media, manual, case, you use your own internet to download, have to store the game on own storage or take the risk with cloud type storage where you are subject to play when and where by the dev/pub and in some cases can loose access to bought material if you dont use it within a certain period eg. EA origin or if a company changes server and can play at all eg UBisoft . Most games can be purchased cheaper with physical copies, no resell or lending options or the hope games may become collectables and so on. Think I'll stay physical copies for as long as possible.

    My Steam account is banned 'til this day, because I bought a pre-paid credit card, and steam's servers didn't take the money off it within a week, so it took it back. So my account with a few hundred dollars worth of games got banned over $10 worth of puzzle games that bounced.

    I disputed it, and they said we won't unban the account unless you pay it off with the card you originally purchased it with... was going to use different card.

    Great lot of f**king help, if your servers won't take the payments from the card I originally tried to pay with.

    'til this day haven't bought a game off Steam or any digital copy.

    cdwow do games for roughly the same price, and send you a hard copy, I love them, and will forever get games off of them, as they don't f**k you over.
    They've f**ked up an order before, but they sure as hell fixed it for me, unlike steam.

    That's my rant <3

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