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What happens to your Steam account when you die?

Here's a Thing.

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How much have you spent on your Steam account, do you reckon? Even if it's a rough estimate, try and come up with a figure; it'll be a useful one to have in the back of your mind as we delve into today's episode of Here's a Thing because I imagine, if you've purchased multiple titles over multiple years, that number likely isn't a small one.

And yet despite this monetary value and any sentimental worth your Steam library may hold, when you die - as per the agreement you currently have with Valve Corporation - that account for all intent and purpose dies with you as well. As of right now, you can't simply leave your account to a close friend or a loved one.

If you take a look at Section C of the Steam Subscriber Agreement, you'll see it includes the following paragraph:

"Your Account, including any information pertaining to it (e.g.: contact information, billing information, Account history and Subscriptions, etc.), is strictly personal. You may therefore not sell or charge others for the right to use your Account, or otherwise transfer your Account, nor may you sell, charge others for the right to use, or transfer any Subscriptions other than if and as expressly permitted by this Agreement (including any Subscription Terms or Rules of Use) or as otherwise specifically permitted by Valve."

In the simplest terms, this means that without express permission from Valve you can't just give your Steam account to another person. Even if you were to write it into your will that you wanted this to happen, without that permission, it wouldn't hold up upon your death. Earlier this week I spoke to a lawyer who specialises in the video game industry to confirm that this is, in fact, the case.

"Steam's position is that you can't pass it on," explained Alex Tutty, a partner at Sheridans Law Firm. "Which is the default position for pretty much everyone who licenses software. Then they also do say that they'll consider things on a case-by-case basis, so if somebody dies, they will consider proof of death and whether there'd be a legitimate interest in saying you could transfer it.

"I know Facebook allow, for instance, people to log in and set up an 'in memoriam' account and to take over the running of that under different licensing rules. But for Steam, I'm not aware of anyone who's picked up an account of somebody who's died and just carried it on."

This arrangement isn't unique to Valve and Steam. You'll find very similar wording in the terms and conditions you've accepted for the PlayStation Network or Xbox Live, or even outside of games with iTunes or the Amazon Kindle Store.

The issue with these digital libraries is as the end users, when we buy a game or a piece of software digitally, what we're actually buying is the license to use that content. According to the terms and conditions we've agreed to, these licenses can be revoked if we break our side of the bargain, which includes transferring the ownership of our accounts, even upon death.

This will likely remain the case until somebody forces a change in the law. But don't hold your breath.

"Until somebody brings in some digital copyright laws that say your licensed material and your IP that you've purchased during your life is actually akin to ownership and therefore you should be allowed to transfer it, nobody's going to do that," Tutty said.

But hang on, let's give Valve some credit here. Didn't they say we could potentially transfer a Steam account from one person to another if we received their permission? Okay, well let's give that a go.

If I were to die tomorrow, I think I'd quite like my Steam account to be passed on to my good friend and coworker, Christian Donlan. I know he hasn't really played the Total War games a great deal and I think he'd enjoy my collection.

So let's say I wanted to write a will stating that this should happen upon my demise. I'd now just need Valve to give it the green light.

But how easy is that process? I headed over to the official Steam Support page to find out and to my surprise, there isn't currently a section for users planning to write their last will and testament. Huh. Well, how are you supposed to do it then?

Which is exactly the problem, isn't it? It's all well and good for the terms and conditions to suggest there might be an exception to the rules if you ask for Valve's permission. But without any kind of infrastructure to support that, it's not particularly helpful. I tried sending my request via an unrelated support page and received the following response a couple of days later:

"Hello Chris, Steam accounts and licenses are not transferable. Steam support can't provide you with any permission that would change this. We also can't provide assistance regarding your will or what steps should be taken in the event of your death.Thanks for using Steam, Thor."

Cheers Thor. And sorry Donlan, I guess.

Donlan, disappointed.

I suspect there is someone at Valve who can speak to that, someone who might be able to grant me the permission I need here. But how on earth do I go about getting in touch with that person, whoever it is? Realistically, I just can't.

So this agreement we have with digital marketplaces already feels antiquated. And this problem isn't going to just disappear. As today's Steam users continue to grow older, it'll inevitably need to be addressed at some point.

"I think they're definitely going to need to catch up," said Tutty. "I also think they're going to need to catch up on a more practical basis because everyone is going to just pass on in their wills, their passwords. You'll be left with a situation in which their terms don't reflect the reality of what's going on. As soon as you end up in that situation, you begin to look slightly redundant.

"If everyone is flouting the rules of your terms, then your rules are powerless. If you're not going to do anything about it then arguably they shouldn't even be applicable."

So things need to change, that's apparent, but although it would be a good PR win for a company like Valve to just come out and say, "hey, we're going to let you transfer ownership of your accounts upon death, no worries", it's not quite that straightforward. For that to actually happen, Valve would need to renegotiate the terms they currently have with the publishers they're selling these products on behalf of. What we actually need, my friends is a hero. What we need is Bruce Willis.

In late 2012, a really weird story started doing the rounds, claiming that the actor Bruce Willis was concerned about what would happen to his substantial iTunes library upon his death. More than this, it was rumoured that he was preparing legal action against Apple to allow him to leave his account to his daughters once he died (hard).

Now it turned out this story was bogus, which is a crying shame, but it raises a very valid point. For these companies to change their terms and conditions, there likely needs to be a high-profile legal battle.

"I would expect there will be a legal change either under case law," said Tutty. "Where someone will challenge it and say actually, this is an asset and I should be entitled to do it.

"Or typically what happens with most changes in the digital legal world, a lot of it comes from the States because they're at the forefront of it. So if Bruce Willis had successfully challenged it and got a decision in the Californian courts, then it's likely that would start being enforced elsewhere."

Bruce, if you're out there and if you're listening... we need you back, pal (with a vengeance).

So that's where we're at. Of course, in reality, you can give someone your login details and if you passed away, Valve's unlikely to know that it's in fact, not you playing from beyond the grave. But in the eyes of the law, that's not supposed to happen. Which is ridiculous. If you've spent hundreds or maybe thousands of pounds on your Steam library, it only feels right that you should be able to have a say in what happens to that library once you're gone.

We've asked Valve for comment on their current Subscriber Agreement.

Illustration and animation by Anni Sayers.

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