Australia, Steam and consumer legal rights in video games

If you decide you don’t want your purchased Steam, Xbox Live or Apple iOS game anymore, or if it doesn’t work as promised or at all, what rights do you have legally?

I get such questions a LOT.  While there is a body of law about this area of consumer protection, sadly there is little in the way of actual, specific legal decisions applying those laws to this situation to to which I can point. So I read with interest some recent news out of Australia on the consumer protection front: the Australian Competition and Consumer Authority is to investigate Steam, the world’s largest digital distribution platform for games, over concerns that it does not comply with Australian consumer protection law, particularly relating to refunds and returns.

Specifically, the ACCC claims that:

“Valve made false or misleading representations to Australian customers of Steam that:

  • consumers were not entitled to a refund for any games sold by Valve via Steam in any circumstances;
  • Valve had excluded, restricted or modified statutory guarantees and/or warranties that goods would be of acceptable quality;
  • Valve was not under any obligation to repair, replace or provide a refund for a game where the consumer had not contacted and attempted to resolve the problem with the computer game developer; and
  • the statutory consumer guarantees did not apply to games sold by Valve.”

You can read the full press release here (imaginatively entitled “Full Steam Ahead” by some wag at the ACCC).

This is a really interesting development to me for a few reasons:

(1) This is the first regulator to my knowledge which is specifically investigating the topic of digital distribution platforms’ compliance with consumer protection law, particularly regarding issues like refund rights and the extent to which platforms are bound by legal rules that products must always meet minimum quality standards (eg a requirement called called ‘satisfactory quality’ or ‘acceptable quality’ in the UK and Commonwealth countries or ‘merchantable quality’ in the US, among other requirements).

(2) The Australian legal view on this issue carries weight: other Commonwealth countries pay attention to Australian legal developments and often draw on them to influence their own views, thanks to the quality of Australian jurisprudence and the Commonwealth’s shared common law legal system, modelled originally on English law. So, for example, as a baby legal student I came up through university reading about not just the English legal view on an issue, but also the Australian, Canadian and New Zealand position among others.

(3) Although I’m not an Australian lawyer, my reading of the press release and my own experience suggests that actually Australian law in this area is very similar (like word for word similar) to UK law and, to a lesser extent, US law. Again therefore, what happens in Australia matters.

So basically: what Australia does in this matter could influence major games markets, in particular the UK, Canada and New Zealand but also the US and conceivably other common law countries even including India too.  Besides which, I know from my own experience that gamers are very often asking each other and lawyers like me these questions themselves, anyway.

So folks, watch this space…

 

 

 

 

17 comments

  1. Hi Jas, thanks for the article. While the application of Australia’s consumer law will no doubt be clarified throughout the proceedings, I’m particularly interested in considering how the law ‘should’ apply in this situation. i.e. Should local consumer law apply to global online marketplaces? From my own experience, if I want the benefit of local consumer protection laws I will choose local retailers (e.g. while I might save some money buying a video camera online via eBay from an overseas market, I’d prefer to buy locally and pay extra for the benefit of local consumer protection laws). It will be interesting to see how international law develops in this area.

  2. Australian consumer law purports to apply to all products and services supplied to Australian consumers. Major corporations therefore often include an extra line or two in their terms – eg Microsoft’s terms of use includes: “AUSTRALIA: You have statutory guarantees under the Australian Consumer Law and nothing in these terms is intended to affect those rights” (http://www.microsoft.com/australia/legal/terms-conditions.aspx).

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