A Question Regarding Rights, or Lack Thereof

The question machine has made an exact copy of an arrangement of bits, which were then translated by my computer and came out like this:


I have a question regarding Digital Rights Management. I think this is a funny phrase to begin with, because clearly, I have no rights here.

I just got a copy of Empire Total War for the PC. A friend of mine bought the game for his machine but found out his system wasn’t up to the task. Being the owner of a beast-machine, I paid him $50 and took the game (DVDs and all) off him.

When I go to install the game on my PC, Steam tells me the game is already linked to my friend’s Steam account. Oh snap, better get him to relinquish his control of the licence. Hmm, no obvious way to do that, better hit up Steam support.

Hours later, I find out that it’s impossible to do. You can walk into a store and purchase a game, sell it to a friend (so you can no longer use it) and it’s worthless. You’re not buying a game, you’re leasing it from Valve and playing by their rules.

My question is, what can I do? Do I have a leg to stand on when it comes to fighting Valve? Do I have to return the game to my friend and ask for my money back?


Ah digital rights, and their management: a pet topic of mine. Pull up a seat, and lend me your ear for a short while.

Dylan Horrocks Copyright CartoonAs you say, Digital Rights Management is such a bulshytt term. Don’t mistake me: the people that made and sold Empire Total War have rights. You will find most (if not all) countries have laws to protect those rights. Laws against theft of physical DVDs, and laws against copyright infringement, such as by unlawfully copying the bits on a DVD*. If you are found to be infringing these laws, you may expect to be punished.

*Note: copying bits on a DVD is not theft. Do not forget this fact, regardless of how many times you are harassed as a thief when you pay to see a movie.

Here’s where it starts to get interesting. The entertainment industry, including computer game producers, would appear to believe that these laws and their punishments are not sufficient to preserve a level of revenue that they are comfortable with. There is, without doubt, a level of piracy in any business that relies on digital information. The pertinent question is this: does that piracy cause such a detriment to the producers’ business that it justifies the current level of usage restriction? Yes, usage restriction, not “digital rights management”, or whatever fluffy term is used to define these measures.

In the eyes of the law, a computer game, an mp3 file, or an image on your hard drive is not particularly different to a paperback book (notwithstanding recent law changes that bestow particular privileges on digital media). It’s perfectly fine for me to read a book multiple times, to lend it to a friend, or to read it with a cat in a hat or a goat on a boat. It is of course illegal for me to make a copy of that book and give it away, and it is “more” illegal (the level of punishment is higher), if I make multiple copies of that book and profit from selling them. All fairly straightforward so far.

The ubiquity of online access, coupled with the success of online games, led to the common system of requiring a unique “CD Key” in order to play your game with other owners online. Nothing freaky here: you need to go online to play with friends, so the extra overhead of checking to see that your copy of the game (imagine: your paperback book) is unique is not at all onerous. Lately that has extended to requiring a “CD Key” to play the game at all. Valve, makers of the most popular online game (which semironically started as a user-created modification to Half Life), have taken this CD Key concept a step further with Steam. Steam is an online community where one can buy, download, and play games – online or otherwise.

I’ve bought and sold a fair quantity of computer games in my time. Purchased through standard channels, and sold through others. I have also fallen for the slick, simple Steam experience. I’ve purchased a number of games on the service, and woken up the next day to find them conveniently ready to play – all 4GB of original DVD content in many cases. I did not (until your question alerted me to the fact), know that this collection of Steam games is worth precisely zero to anyone else. I have nothing to sell, and even if it was legal for me to copy the games onto DVD, you point out that there is no way to sell the CD Key association on Steam to anyone else. As you mention, I’ve paid a reasonable sum to basically borrow these games from Valve. Not cool.

Unfortunately, Steam themselves are quite clear about this:


Per the Steam Subscriber Agreement, Steam game subscriptions / CD keys are nontransferable and cannot be reset / moved between Steam accounts.


Even if you purchased a used retail copy of a game from someone else (as has been common for years: some computer game stores live and die by their secondhand sales), you’re shit outta luck:


You must have a copy of your valid purchase receipt from within the last 90 days to have the CD Key moved to your account.

We do not accept receipts from online auction websites or used software vendors. If you do not provide a valid purchase receipt, Valve will not be able to transfer the CD Key.


It’s wonderful isn’t it? This should be called Digital Usage Restrictions, or DUR, not DRM. Imagine this same scenario with your book. Every time you want to get your goat, jump in a boat, and read your book together, you’ll have to confirm with someone that you own your book, and you have the right to read it. If you want to sell your book, or just lend it to someone else to read, tough biscuits. Not even “hey can you confirm you own this book before you sell it”. Just no. No you can’t sell or transfer this thing you paid for.

As Dylan’s succintly brilliant comic points out, these entertainment companies have been vehemently and violently protesting that every new innovation is certain to destroy their revenue model, and hence their entire industry. They have used this position to abuse and extend the notion of copyright (and other rights) to their own ends, and to the detriment of users such as yourself. They have been wrong every goddamn time. The sole outcome has been to confuse and frustrate their legitimate customers.

As for your question, my official answer is yes, you will need to ask your friend for your money back, as tasteless as that sounds. Even a class-action lawsuit against Steam probably wouldn’t stick, because they outline their non-transferable terms in their Satanistic contract that you have already agreed to.

On the other hand, if you’re not planning to play online, just go and download a pirate copy.


  1. In some ways it was this sort of thing that resulted in my running a pirate copy of Windows on my home desktop. It not that I don’t have a legal copy, I have two (Microsoft gave them to me when I used to do computer talkback stuff on the radio). But I’ve upgraded and modified my computer so often that neither copy can be activated automatically. Instead anytime I make a system change, or reinstall I have to call Microsoft, enter a long code, wait to be told it doesn’t activate, then wait on hold, then provide personal details, and explain to someone why I am reactivating, and then get a long silly code back.

  2. That was well written and easy to understand. And it made it really easy for me to decide that I’ll probably never ever sign up for Steam….

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