Now that game sales are moving more and more into the digital realm, a question I sometimes hear is whether this changes anything in regard to game ownership, and whether users really “own” the games they buy through services like Steam.
The short answer to that question is no, users don’t really “own” their Steam games. However, they never owned games they bought on CDs either. When someone buys a game, all they get is a license to use the game, usually for personal, non-commercial purposes. The game company still owns all the intellectual property related to the game, all the buyer gets is essentially a right to play it. This has been true since the beginning of the industry, and the shift from selling physical copies of games to electronic copies has done nothing to change this from a legal perspective.
From a practical standpoint, however, things have changed considerably. Electronic delivery of games has made it far, far easier for companies to actually enforce the terms of their game licenses. For example, while in the days of CDs game companies had essentially zero chance of enforcing prohibitions on making copies of games or sharing them with others, nowadays that’s not the case. Services like Steam can keep far closer track of what you do with your copy of a game, and make it far harder for users to “circumvent” any such restrictions.
Moreover, if someone breaches the terms of a game license, it’s a lot easier for for companies to terminate that license (i.e. cut off that person’s access to the game). For instance, Valve regularly bans Steam users caught cheating by their software.
While Counterstrike cheaters aren’t too high on anyone’s pity list, other Steam users have also been banned for other, more vague transgressions against Valve’s terms of service, losing access to copies of all games in their library. For instance, this story highlights the story of a who was banned by Valve for vague violations of its terms of service, without any clear explanation for what he did wrong. The user lost access to a game library containing approximately $1,500 worth of games, with no refund, which appears to be Valve’s policy in the case of these bans. The ban was eventually lifted after the story made the rounds on some game publications, however the user was never provided with an explanation for what his alleged transgression was.
Admittedly stories like the one above are few and far between at the moment, however as electronic sales become more established, and other companies become more involved in online game sales *cough* Origin *cough* they’re bound to become more common.
Right now the only legal recourse someone who feels they were unfairly banned by Valve or another company from their service would be taking that company to court or arbitration, which makes no financial sense, even for $1,500 worth of games. At the same time, this is still real money that people have spent on their games (not to mention what can be hundreds or thousands of hours of progress, which must have some value), and allowing companies to essentially act as judge, jury and executioner in cutting off their access to their game library, without giving the these persons some practical recourse to dispute their ban (beyond the pipe dream of a lawsuit) seems entirely unfair. What the practical solution to this problem is I don’t know, but it’s something to think about as the era of physical game copies winds down.