Valve under pressure for forbidding transfer of user accountsterms and conditions to be illegal

Valve Corporation, the operator of the popular Steam online games platform, finds itself under pressure in Germany. This January (2013), the Verbraucherzentrale Bundesverband, an important German consumer protection organization, has filed a law suit against Valve for alleged violation of consumer rights.

In August 2012 had introduced a change in the terms and conditions of the Steam platform, according to which a user account may not be transferred to someone else any more. This was communicated to the users by a pop up informing them about the change and requiring them to give their explicit consent to this change, stating that otherwise their accounts would be blocked, effectively preventing further use.

Verbraucherzentrale Bundesverband sent a cease and desist letter to Valve demanding to end this policy. The Verbraucherzentrale argues that, following the latest decision by the  European Court of Justice the marketing and transfer of used licenses for computer programs downloaded from the internet is legal and cannot be contested by the original copyright holders. (Judgment of the European Court of Justice of 3 July 2012, C‑128/11 – UsedSoft GmbH vs.Oracle International Corp., Marketing of used licenses for computer programs downloaded from the internet – Directive 2009/24/EC – Articles 4(2) and 5(1) – Exhaustion of the distribution right – Concept of lawful acquirer, Link). To a certain extent, this overturns a previous decision by the German Federal Court of Justice which had ruled in 2010 that the transfer of user accounts as such may be restricted when a game is sold which can only be activated with online registration, even if this would effectively make the resale of the game impossible (BGH, Urteil vom11.02.2010, Az.I ZR 178/08 – Half-Life 2, Link). Under the new circumstances, the Verbraucherzentrale argues, Valve’s new policy of restricting the transfer of user accounts is in conflict with European and German law, because it binds a user permanently to his account and will not let him assign it to someone else, thereby effectively preventing the sale of the software purchased under this account, which following the ECJ judgment should be possible.

While Valve apparently has agreed to at least change the mechanism with the pop-up window to a more user-friendly format, it has been unwilling to part with the idea that the Steam user accounts, and the associated software, may not be transferred.

The Verbraucherzentrale has taken the case to court now, and the Berlin district court (Landgericht Berlin) will have to decide on the issue.

While the case on the face of it is only about users of Steam from Germany, it will be interesting to see where it leads in an international context.

Further information may be found on the Verbraucherzentrale’s website (Link and Link).

If you have any questions please feel free to contact:

Dr. Marcus Dittmann

Date: January 2013