TRACY KING REFUND RIGHTS
Steam finally has a scheme for giving customers refunds, but we’ve been legally entitled to such a system for years, says Tracy King
our statutory rights are not affected, says the old disclaimer we’ve all seen on product packaging, usually under the ‘if this is terrible, send it back to us’ blurb. The invoking of statutory rights in that context is akin to claiming an aerosol can is ‘CFC-free’. Manufacturers and retailers in those cases are boasting about something that’s actually mandated by law. Score one for canny marketing. It’s pretty difficult to imagine a scenario in which a manufacturer could affect your statutory rights. Rights are, well, rights. There’s a clue in the name.
But when it comes to digital products, the waters are muddier, because digital products are comparatively new. Consumer protection regulations didn’t spring up fully formed the first time someone made an axe and sold it to their neighbour for a chunk of gold. Legislation is honed and refined as time, and markets, go on. Lobbying is increasingly a factor, where manufacturers try to influence legislation in their favour rather than customers’ favour, but the law for England and Wales is pretty heavily consumerorientated, except when it comes to digital products.
Most people don’t separate digital products from physical products, or from services. In our heads, any product we buy with money should be fair game for a refund if broken, or at the very least, to be made good via a replacement or getting the original product fixed. For the purposes of consumer protection, digital downloads aren’t considered goods or services in English law, and have their own bit of legislation governing cancellations, but your rights remain the same when it comes to getting refunds for broken stuff. This situation appears to be news to the providers of digital content, though, who have long resisted fair refunds for buggy or unfinished games.
YThe new Consumer Contract Regulations specify that downloaders of digital content have the same right to cancel the contract as anyone else (14 days), but by that time you’ll have probably already downloaded the content. If so (which is likely, because that’s how it works), you immediately lose your right to cancel. It’s very clear to see why this happens. Digital products can’t be given back once downloaded, and can be duplicated with no loss or degradation of the original. That isn’t true of a sandwich, for example. However, if the download doesn’t work, or doesn’t match the description, you’re absolutely entitled to a refund. However, digital retailers aren’t at all keen on giving them.
This situation has long been the bugbear (pun intended) of Steam users, who seemingly have no recourse when downloading a game that turns out to be unplayable. Players in England and Wales could go down the small claims court route, but most people aren’t prepared to go through that hassle for the sake of a few quid. Indeed, I’d wager that most gamers aren’t even aware they have a legal right to a refund. As a result, the balance has been tilted away from gamers.
But now, after wrangling, Steam has announced its new refund policy, whereby a customer can get a refund on a game for any reason as long as they played it for under two hours. It’s a slightly messy policy, inasmuch as smaller developers who make short games could easily fall foul of the two-hour rule, and games without DRM could easily just be copied to another directory and then refunded.
However, Steam and game developers are going to have to cross those bridges in these early days of digital consumer rights. If a product is broken then fix it, or at the very least give your customer a damn refund.