Foreign companies that may think they can weasel out of being liable for contracts with Australian clients can thank our computer gamers for a hard won lesson in life.
Overseas companies have been forcefully reminded that they can’t avoid the Australian Consumer Law by trying to make an agreement with an Australian customer subject to a foreign law.
Australia’s legions of computer gamers were instrumental in driving home the affirmation that foreign contracts are subject to Australian consumer laws.
Valve, a big games company which runs the software distribution platform Steam, did not previously offer refunds on games. If you bought a game on Steam and it turned out not to work (unplayable, full of bugs and errors, didn’t contain features it was described as having and so on) then it was too bad as far as Valve were concerned.
An example might be an Australian gamer purchased a game which was advertised in the store as being able to run on their computer based on the listed specifications, but when said Australian gamer purchased and installed the game, it was unplayable – slow, jerky, looked terrible, that sort of thing.
Under Australian law the game would not be fit for its intended purpose and the purchaser entitled to a refund, but under the US laws Valve/Steam work on, it’s basically “That’s your problem, not our problem” so no refund,
Australia’s ACCC took Valve to court in 2014 and won. While the case was dragging on, Valve/Steam implemented a limited refund policy where people could claim a refund if they’d had the game less than two weeks AND played less than two hours.
Gaming experts say this sounded good in theory, but the tutorial missions at the start of a game could easily run to two hours and some of the problems might not become apparent until further into the game itself, so the ACCC pressed on with their case.
Valve/Steam lost – the courts here ruled Australian consumer law did apply to games bought over the internet by Australian residents, even if the provider was based overseas and had no Australian presence otherwise.
Valve fought the decision through the courts but lost its appeals and has finally had to publish an Australian consumer rights notice on Steam. Special leave to appeal to the High Court was refused.
The games experts say the games that tended to cause issues were not your big AAA titles for the most part, the big companies don’t release unplayable messes but the games that did fail to deliver cast a pall over the whole industry.
What matters most is the fact consumer protections are being enforced. If you want to do business in Australia you need to comply with our laws.