After you die, your Steam games will be stuck in legal limbo

But... but I was just about to check out <em>Tacoma</em>.
Enlarge / But… but I was just about to check out Tacoma.

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With Valve’s Steam gaming platform approaching the US drinking age this year, more and more aging PC gamers may be considering what will happen to their vast digital game libraries after they die. Unfortunately, legally, your collection of hundreds of backlogged games will likely pass into the ether along with you someday.

The issue of digital game inheritability gained renewed attention this week as a ResetEra poster quoted a Steam support response asking about transferring Steam account ownership via a last will and testament. “Unfortunately, Steam accounts and games are non-transferable” the response reads. “Steam Support can’t provide someone else with access to the account or merge its contents with another account. I regret to inform you that your Steam account cannot be transferred via a will.”

This isn’t the first time someone has asked this basic estate planning question, of course. Last year, a Steam forum user quoted a similar response from Steam support as saying, “Your account is yours and yours alone. Now you can share it with family members, but you cannot give it away.

Potential loopholes

As a practical matter, Steam would have little way of knowing if you wrote down your Steam username and password and left instructions for your estate to give that information to your descendants. When it comes to legal ownership of that account, though, the Steam Subscriber Agreement seems relatively clear.

“You may not reveal, share, or otherwise allow others to use your password or Account except as otherwise specifically authorized by Valve,” the agreement reads, in part. “You may… not sell or charge others for the right to use your Account, or otherwise transfer your Account, nor may you sell, charge others for the right to use, or transfer any Subscriptions other than if and as expressly permitted by this Agreement… or as otherwise specifically permitted by Valve.”

Eagle-eyed readers might notice a potential loophole, though, in the clauses regarding account transfers that are “specifically permitted by Valve.” Steam forum users have suggested in the past that Valve “wouldn’t block this change of ownership” via a will if a user or their estate specifically requests it (Valve has not responded to a request for comment).

Donating all those 3DS and Wii U games to someone else might be difficult for Jirard “The Completionist” Khalil.

There also might be a partial, physical workaround for Steam users who bequeath an actual computer with downloaded titles installed. In a 2013 Santa Clara High Technology Law Journal article, author Claudine Wong writes that “digital content is transferable to a deceased user’s survivors if legal copies of that content are located on physical devices, such as iPods or Kindle e-readers.” But if that descendant wanted to download those games to a different device or reinstall them in the case of a hard drive failure, they’d legally be out of luck.

Beyond personal estate planning, the inability to transfer digital game licenses has some implications for video game preservation work as well. Last year, Jirard “The Completionist” Khalil spent nearly $20,000 to purchase and download every digital 3DS and Wii U game while they were still available. And while Khalil said he intends to donate the physical machines (and their downloads) to the Video Game History Foundation, subscriber agreements mean the charity may have trouble taking legal ownership of those digital games and accounts.
“There is no reasonable, legal path for the preservation of digital-born video games,” VGHF’s then co-director Kelsey Lewin told Ars last year. “Limiting library access only to physical games might have worked 20 years ago, but we no longer live in a world where all games are sold on physical media, and we haven’t for a long time.”

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