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Making sense of Steam's refund policy

EU law says you have a 14 day no questions asked refund right. What does Valve think?

This week, Steam users on Reddit noticed Valve had recently updated its subscriber agreement, and in the process sparked a debate about its refund policy.

Buried within the agreement is a paragraph about relates to a 14-day no questions asked refund policy for customers in the EU.

Here's the relevant text:

  • IF YOU ARE AN EU SUBSCRIBER, YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO WITHDRAW FROM A PURCHASE TRANSACTION FOR DIGITAL CONTENT WITHOUT CHARGE AND WITHOUT GIVING ANY REASON FOR A DURATION OF FOURTEEN DAYS OR UNTIL VALVE'S PERFORMANCE OF ITS OBLIGATIONS HAS BEGUN WITH YOUR PRIOR EXPRESS CONSENT AND YOUR ACKNOWLEDGMENT THAT YOU THEREBY LOSE YOUR RIGHT OF WITHDRAWAL, WHICHEVER HAPPENS SOONER.
  • THEREFORE, YOU WILL BE INFORMED DURING THE CHECKOUT PROCESS WHEN OUR PERFORMANCE STARTS AND ASKED TO PROVIDE YOUR PRIOR EXPRESS CONSENT TO THE PURCHASE BEING FINAL.

It was thought that this was a new addition to Valve's Steam agreement, but in truth EU law dictating a 14-day refund policy for digital goods has been in place since summer 2014.

Video games lawyers have told Eurogamer that Valve and all other major eCommerce platforms changed their consumer terms and conditions to comply with the EU's new consumer laws as set out by the Consumer Rights Directive last year. It means EU consumers have a 14-day return ability for "digital content".

And here's how it works, according to EU law:

  • You also enjoy the right of withdrawal within 14 days from concluding the contract for online digital content. However, once you start downloading or streaming the content you may no longer withdraw from the purchase, provided that the trader has complied with his obligations.
  • Specifically, the trader must first obtain your explicit agreement to the immediate download or streaming, and you must explicitly acknowledge that you lose your right to withdraw once the performance has started.

We're even given an example:

  • Lucrezia wanted to watch a movie online on a video on demand website. Before paying, a pop-up window appeared indicating that she must consent to the immediate performance and acknowledge that she would lose her right of withdrawal once the performance had started. Lucrezia ticked the corresponding box, and was then directed to the payment page. Having paid, the movie started to stream and she was no longer entitled to withdraw from the contract.

Now, Valve has come under fire for apparently forcing users to waive their right to a refund before buying something, which sounds ridiculous. But is the company behind Dota 2, Half-Life, Left 4 Dead and Team Fortress actually breaking the law?

When EU customers buy something from Steam, they're shown the following message during the checkout process (we got this message while buying System Shock 2):

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You must tick this box in order to buy something from Steam.

  • By clicking "Purchase" you agree that Valve provides you immediate access to digital content as soon as you complete your purchase, without waiting the 14-day withdrawal period. Therefore, you expressly waive your right to withdraw from this purchase.

The important word in all of this is "performance". The customers' right to a refund within 14 days can be lost if "the performance has begun with the consumer's prior express consent and his acknowledgement that he thereby loses his right of withdrawal", according to Article 16(m) of the Consumer Rights Directive.

The problem is, we don't yet know what "performance", exactly, means, as there has been no specific legal ruling or guidance on the mater.

The upshot is that once the contract is being "performed", the right to a refund can be lost. And in Valve's eyes, this happens as soon as you click "purchase" - not as soon as you begin downloading.

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When you buy a game from Steam, it's immediately made available to download and install.

There appears to be a discrepancy between how this should all work in practice according to EU law and according to Valve. EU law mentions you may no longer withdraw from the purchase once you start downloading or streaming the content. As far as Valve is concerned, you may no longer withdraw from the purchase as soon as you, well, make the purchase.

This seems outrageous, and it certainly seems anti-consumer, but Valve is no doubt protecting itself here from those who may wish to game the system by treating Steam as if it were a library.

It's worth comparing Valve's policies to other video game platforms. GOG, for example, has a pretty generous "withdrawal right":

  • Withdrawal Right: we give you the right to withdraw from a purchase of GOG content without charge and for any reason within 30 days after you bought that GOG content, IF it has not been downloaded, streamed, activated or used in any way before then. If any of those things happen then your withdrawal right is lost.

EA's Origin refund policy appears generous, too. It offers refunds under what's called the "Great Game Guarantee":

  • You may return EA full game downloads (PC or Mac) and participating third party titles purchased on Origin for a full refund. Refund requests can be made within 24 hours after you first launch the game, within seven days from your date of purchase, or within seven days from the game's release date if you pre-ordered, whichever comes first. And if you purchase a new EA game within the first 30 days of its release date and can't play it due to technical reasons within EA's control, you can request a refund within 72 hours after you first launch the game instead of 24.
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Origin requires you agree to withdraw your right to a refund as soon as you place your order.

You see the image on the right when buying a game through Origin. Like Steam, Origin requires you agree to waive your right to a refund as soon as you place your order. This is slightly confusing, because below this message is the reassuring note about the Great Game Guarantee.

Buried within EA's Origin Terms of Sale is mention of the EU law.

  • Important Notice: Please note that you will lose your right of withdrawal with respect to contracts for EA Content, which is digital content, where you have expressly consented to the performance of the digital content beginning immediately upon conclusion of the purchase process and have acknowledged that you will therefore lose your right to withdraw from the contract.

It may take a lawsuit from a disgruntled customer to test the strength of Valve's implementation of EU law.

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