Is selling your Steam account illegal?

Earlier this week, Destructoid reported that a Steam account holder by the handle of “dave311freak” sold his Steam account for $1,000 on eBay.  With the account came all the games attached to it, including Grand Theft Auto IV, Modern Warfare 1 and 2, and Borderlands (more background detail at Kotaku).

This has got us thinking – legally, can you actually sell your Steam account? Or, more importantly, should you be able to sell your Steam account legally?

The basics about Steam and Steam Accounts

Steam is a well-known games portal and download platform provided by Valve.  You have to register an account in order to use Steam, following which you can purchase and download games which are tied to that account such that, wherever you access your Steam account, you can play those games (provided you download the game on to your local PC first, obviously). 

So, it’s pretty clear already that a Steam account can have pretty significant economic value based upon the games tied to it (in Dave’s case, apparently he estimated the games tied to his account were worth $2,700).  But can you realise that value?

At this point, we need to start looking at the Steam account from a legal perspective.  Legally, Valve takes the position that a Steam account is simply a ‘subscription service’ provided by Valve to gamers upon specific terms and conditions contained principally in the Steam Subscriber Agreement (this is supplemented by additional agreements – “Subscription Terms”- entered into when a game is downloaded).

This is what the Subscriber Agreement says about Steam accounts:

“When you complete Steam’s registration process, you create a Steam account (“Account”). Your Account may also include billing information you provide to us for the purchase of Subscriptions. You are solely responsible for all activity on your Account and for the security of your computer system. You may not reveal, share or otherwise allow others to use your password or Account. You agree that you are personally responsible for the use of your password and Account and for all of the communication and activity on Steam that results from use of your login name and password. You may not sell or charge others for the right to use your Account, or otherwise transfer your Account.” (Emphasis added.)

The Subscriber Agreement also goes on to define the services, software and content (including games) available through Steam as “Subscriptions” and states that the Steam software and any Subscriptions is provided to gamers on the basis of a “limited, terminable, non-exclusive license and right to use the Steam Software for your personal use in accordance with this Agreement and the Subscription Terms.  The Steam Software is licensed, not sold. Your license confers no title or ownership in the Steam Software.

In other words, Steam account holders only have a licence the Steam software and any games they purchase through Steam.  A licence, in a nutshell, is a limited right to possess and use a thing but does not give any ownership rights over that thing.

So, according to the Steam Subscriber Agreement you do not own the games you download through Steam and, in any event, you are contractually prohibited from selling your Steam account.  This amounts to a pretty strong argument that you, on the face of the Subscriber Agreement, you cannot sell your Steam account to someone else.

But that is by no means the end of the story.

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