The Federation of German Consumer Organizations (VZBV) has sued computer game distributor Valve because it prohibits Steam gamers from reselling their games.
Steam users own the games they purchase and should be able to resell them when they want to, just like owners of traditional card or board games can, said Carola Elbrecht, project manager for consumer rights in the digital world at the VZBV, on Thursday. But while those traditional game owners can resell their games whenever they like, Steam users often cannot, she said.
In theory, a Steam user could download a game, burn it on a CD and resell it, she said. In most cases, though, buyers wouldn't be able to play the game they purchased because the games are linked to a user account and without the key for that specific account, online-only games are not playable, she said.
Because Valve forbids its users to sell or transfer their accounts to another person, the exchange of games that can only be played online is impossible, she said. This means that a Steam user only partially owns games, Elbrecht said. "If I pay the full price for a game, then why am I not allowed to do with it what I want," she added.
Valve was warned in September by the VZBV to change this practice, but the company did not comply with the federation's demands. Therefore, the federation sued the company in the District Court of Berlin on Wednesday.
"We are aware of the press release about the lawsuit filed by the VZBV, but we have not yet seen the actual complaint," said Doug Lombardi, Valve's vice president of marketing, in an email. "That said, we understand the complaint is somehow regarding the transferability of Steam accounts, despite the fact that this issue has already been ruled upon favorably to Valve in a prior case between Valve and the VZBV by the German supreme court," he said.
The VZBV sued the game distributor for similar reasons once before, Elbrecht said. That case went all the way to the German Federal Court of Justice, which ruled in 2010 that Valve did not violate German law by prohibiting the transfer of user accounts.
The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), however, ruled in July that the trading of "used" software licenses is legal and that the author of such software cannot oppose any resale.
While the CJEU's case is not exactly the same as the current litigation against Valve, the VZBV reckons that the ruling gives sufficient basis for a new lawsuit, Elbrecht said. She expected the litigation to go on for years, and it will probably end up at the federal court again, she said.
Nevertheless, a new lawsuit is useful, she said. Besides raising awareness of the issue and possibly changing the minds of the judges, the litigation is also meant as a signal to other game distributors that have the same practices, she said.
While Valve was unwilling to change its practices on this point, it promised to change the way it gets users' consent when it changes its terms and conditions. The last time Valve changed the terms and conditions for Steam, users were unable to play their games if they did not accept the new rules, Elbrecht said. Valve promised to adjust the mandatory consent to let users who don't want to accept the new terms in the future to still be able to play their purchased games.
Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org