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

Custom PC - - OPINION - / SCEP­TI­CAL ANAL­Y­SIS

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.

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