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Australian Watchdog Takes Valve To Court Over Refunds

The concerned look of a man about to eat a flag.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages, welcome to another legal goings on industry punch up. This time in the red corner, hailing from Seattle and weighing in at approximately several billion pounds, it’s Valve. Meanwhile, in the blue corner, the challenger Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) seeks to do battle on the basis of “misleading consumer guarantee representations” under the 2011 Australian Consumer Law. Specifically, they’re challenging Valve’s no-refunds refund policy. Valve’s response, in a short statement to IGN from VP of marketing Doug Lombardi, is that they are “making every effort to cooperate with the Australian officials on this matter.” Read on for the details.

With the usual caveat that I am not a lawyer, here we go. The Australian consumer watchdog argue that Valve have lied or mislead customers by suggesting 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.

These “statutory consumer guarantees” are the ones outlined in the Australian Consumer Law (ACL). Essentially, they place the onus on a business to repair, replace or refund any product they provide which has a “major fault.” Valve’s current refund policy is that they don’t offer them outside pre-order periods “unless required by local law.”

Given what the ACCC are saying, it seems Valve are already “required by local law” to follow these regulations and, as the retailer, accept responsibility for problems with products. There are, to my knowledge, no buttons on the Steam interface to easily report problems with a title. The relevant sections of the Steam support pages for non-Valve games usually link to the support sections of the publisher or developer’s own website.

The ACL’s definition of “major fault” is a sticky point. It’s clearly written for physical products rather than digital ones, which muddies things. How does the requirement that products “come with undisturbed possession, so no one has a right to take the goods away or prevent you from using them” interact with the idea of banning people from Steam for being arseholes? The old software argument is that we’re buying licenses, not products. The marketing of many games also treads a very fine line around the ACL’s requirement that products “match descriptions made by the salesperson, on packaging and labels, and in promotions or advertising.” That’s before we even come to games that are unplayably buggy or have poor performance due to specific PC configurations.

The ACCC are seeking “declarations, injunctions, pecuniary penalties, disclosure orders, adverse publicity orders, non-party consumer redress, a compliance program order and costs.” They want Valve to change their refunds policy and offer refunds, in short. The first hearing for the matter, where presumably we’ll get to know Valve’s official response and the ACCC’s claims in more detail, is on October 7th.

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