The Consumer Guarantees in the ACL apply to computer games downloaded from overseas’ vendors

The ACCC – the consumer watchdog – has successfully sued Valve for misleading or deceptive conduct in relation to its Steam gaming platform. The representations were along the lines of statements made in the terms and conditions like:

“ALL STEAM FEES ARE PAYABLE IN ADVANCE AND ARE NOT REFUNDABLE IN WHOLE OR IN PART”.

The ACCC’s case was that such statements were misleading because they were inconsistent with a consumer’s rights to return defective goods and receive a refund. These rights arose (in the case of defective goods) since s 54 of the Australian Consumer Law incorporates into all supplies of goods in trade or commerce to consumers in Australia a guarantee that the goods are of acceptable quality. If they are not, s 259, amongst other things, confers a right of action for compensation where the deficiency in quality could not be remedied or was a major failure and s 263 provides an entitlement to a refund.

Valve is based in Washington State, USA. It argued its arrangements with Australians were not subject to the Australian Consumer Law. There were 3 reasons:

  1. Valve’s conduct did not occur in Australia and it did not carry on business in Australia;
  2. The Steam Subscriber Agreement was governed by the law of Washington State in the USA and so the Australian Consumer Law did not apply; and
  3. The software games were not “goods”.

Conflicts of law rules did not exclude Australian Consumer Law

In (very) broad terms, section 67 of the Australian Consumer Law says that the consumer guarantee provisions of the Australian Consumer Law continue to apply where the proper law of the contract would be Australia (but for the terms of the contract which provide otherwise) or the terms of the contract provide that the laws of some other country govern the contract.

As noted above, Valve’s contract with subscribers (i.e., someone who “buys” a game through Steam to download or play) provided that the governing law of the contract was the law of the state of Washington in the USA and its courts had exclusive jurisdiction.

The parties accepted that this clause could not be relied on in face of s 67. However, Valve argued that nonetheless the “proper law” of the contract was the law of the state of Washington and not somewhere in Australia.

Edelman J noted that at common law, the proper law of a contract was that which had the closest and most real connection with the transaction. This was determined by consideration of:

matters including (i) the places of residence or business of the parties, (ii) the place of contracting, (iii) the place of performance, and (iv) the nature and subject matter of the contract (437). Each of these is considered in turn.

Valve’s customers, at least those who gave evidence for the ACCC, were resident in NSW, Victoria and Tasmania. Valve, however, had its offices in Washington State, USA and did not have offices in Australia. Edeleman J acknowledged also that it was seeking to enter into contracts with people from all over the world and was aiming to do so on consistent terms.

His Honour next considered that the place of contracting was Washington State as that was the place where the electronic communication from the customer was received to form the contract. That is, presumably, the transaction was one where the customer made an offer to “buy” the game and the contract was formed when Valve accepted the transaction in Washington State.[1]

So, while the proper law of the contract was Washington State, USA, s 67 of the ACL applied.

Valve was carrying on business in Australia

Even though his Honour found that the proper law of the contract was Washington State in the USA, Edelman J nonetheless found that Valve both engaged in conduct in Australia and was carrying on business in Australia and so subject to the Australian Consumer Law.

You can see where this is going at [4]:

…. There are some difficult issues involved in determining whether “conduct” is in Australia, but even if Valve’s conduct was not conduct in Australia, the Australian Consumer Law would apply if Valve carried on business in Australia. Valve said that it does not carry on business in Australia despite Valve (i) having more than 2 million user accounts in Australia, (ii) generating potentially millions of dollars in revenue from Australia, (iii) owning, and using, servers in Australia, with original retail value of US $1.2 million, (iv) having relationships with businesses in Australia, and (v) paying tens of thousands of dollars monthly to Australian companies in expenses for running its business in Australia.

conduct in Australia

Despite the difficulties in determining where conduct takes place, Edelman J was able to find that Valve engaged in conduct in Australia. The conduct in question was the making of representations. The representations were made in the place(s) where they were received (otherwise, if no-one saw or heard the representation, there would be no conduct). Here, however, representations about “no refunds” were made directly to customers in Australia in “chat” sessions and when they signed up for accounts and “bought” games to download: [2]

…. The purchase of a game also required a consumer to click on a box that agreed to the terms of the SSA. The consumer provided Valve with his or her location as Australia at the time of purchase. Indeed, Valve priced some games differently in Australia (ts 120–121). The consumer might be told by Valve that “This item is currently unavailable in your region” (Court Book 347).

carrying on business in Australia

Accepting that “carrying on business” could have different meanings depending on the context, Edelman J accepted the approach advanced earlier by Merkel J in Bray:

… the ordinary meaning of “carrying on business” usually involves (by the words “carrying on”) a series or repetition of acts. Those acts will commonly involve “activities undertaken as a commercial enterprise in the nature of a going concern, that is, activities engaged in for the purpose of profit on a continuous and repetitive basis” ….

That was undoubtedly the case here. See the matters referred to in paragraph 4 above.[3]

Software downloads are “goods”

Computer programs are specifically included in the definition of “goods” for the purposes of the ACL. Valve argued, however, that what it was really supplying were services including the motion picures and audio which portrayed the images and sounds which the gamer interacted with.

Edelman J agreed that the film and audio files were not a computer program for these purposes, adopting the definition of a computer program as a set of instructions from the Copyright Act.

Under the ACL, however, it is not a question whether the supply is substantially a supply of services. Rather, the question is whether or not it involves a supply of goods. If so, the way the definitions are written, it doesn’t matter whether there is also a supply of services.

Valve further contended that it did not supply goods as all the subscriber had was a licence to use the software and, citing Cowell, a bare licence is purely a contractual right; not the supply of any property. One problem with this argument was that s2 of the ACL defined supply to include lease, hire or hire-purchase; terms sufficiently wide to encompass a licence. Another problem was that the argument did not take into account that subscribers could download games to play offline. They “physically” had the goods.

Valve therefore breached the consumer warranties implied by the ACL into each arrangement.

Interesting question whether foreighn companies systematically supplying goods or services over the internet to Australia will need to be registrered as a foreign company carrying on business in Australia under s 601CD of the Corporations Act? One may wonder about the practical ramifications flowing from that.

Australian Competition and Consumer Commission v Valve Corporation (No 3) [2016] FCA 196 (Edelman J)


  1. OK, that is an old-fashioned characterisation of the contractual formation, but Edelman J relied more specifically on UNCITRAL Model Law on Electronic Commerce 1996 with additional article 5bis as adopted in 1998 and the electronic transaction provisions in Australian laws such as Electronic Transactions Act 1999 (Cth) s 14B.  ?
  2. Ward Group v Brodie & Stone was distinguishable, at least because in Valve, there were (2.2 million) real purchasers. Gutnick was also distinguished as directed to different issues.  ?
  3. Catalogued again at [199] – [204].  ?

bing infringed BING!

The applicant had registered BING! for

Class 9 Software for the legal profession and other industries and professions not limited in any way to a specific industry or commercial sector; Class 35 Distribution and sales of computer software.

Class 42 Design of computer software; programming maintenance, upgrading and updating of computer software for the legal profession and other industries and professions not limited in any way to a specific industry or commercial sector…

The respondent provided an internet postal service.  To enable subscribers to use the service, it supplied them with software to be downloaded and installed on the subscribers’ own computers.  

The first respondent’s promotional material uses the trade mark “bing” in relation to its software, and through installation and use of the software, the trade mark “bing” appears on the computer screen in various guises. It is clear from the respondents’ own evidence that the first respondent uses the mark “bing” in relation to at least software (class 9); distribution of computer software (class 35), and updating of computer software (class 42).

The software distributed by the first respondent has a number of components including “bing Client”, “bing Virtual Printer Driver”, “Popup bing Mailroom”, “Control bing Printer”, and “bing Help”.

Customers of the first respondent enter a software license agreement in respect of the software (and updates) provided to the customer by the first respondent under the name “bing”. Further, the software licence agreements refer frequently therein to “bing”.

Collier J rejected the argument that “bing” in its various guises was substantially identical to BING!, but found deceptive similarity.  Of potentially greater significance, her Honour went on to find that the respondent was using the “bing” mark in relation to goods and services covered by the applicant’s trade mark registration:

First:

52 …. I agree with the respondents that the first respondent is engaged in the provision of internet postal services, which prima facie are not goods or services in respect of which the applicant’s trade mark is registered. However I consider it is also clear that, as Mr Franklin submitted, the first respondent’s service is, in the manner in which it is conducted with the majority of its clients, a software-enabled service. While customers can access the first respondent’s service without specific software (an issue to which I will return later in the judgment), the first respondent provides software, bearing the trade mark “bing”, to customers to allow the customers to effect the internet postal service it provides, and to access that service.

Then, MID Sydney was distinguished:

57 So far as concerns the software provided by the first respondent to its customers bearing the moniker “bing”, in my view that software is a “good” which is both severable from the internet postal service, and would in other circumstances be capable of being the subject of a registered trade mark in its own right within Class 9. Similarly, distributing and updating that software are “services” within classes 35 and 42. The software supplied by the first respondent, and the services provided by the first respondent in support thereof, are not, to draw an analogy with MID Sydney 90 FCR 236, goods or services which lose their features as software because they form part of an overall broader service. The software remains software, which requires distribution and updating, no matter that it is used in connection with the first respondent’s internet postal service.

as was the SAP case relied on by the respondent

61 Where the analogy between these proceedings and SAP Australia 169 ALR 1 breaks down is that while the Full Court accepted in SAP Australia that “broadly based consulting services” could include supplementary training as an adjunct to the provision of custom designed computer systems for clients, in this case it does not follow that software provided by the first respondent is no more than an incident to the provision of its service. As I noted earlier, the software used by the first respondent is a product in its own right – the copyright therein is owned by a third party, and the first respondent has exclusive distribution rights (TS 66 ll 12-13). The first respondent provides the software even though, as Mr Cranitch conceded during cross-examination, the first respondent has some clients who do not use the software, but send to the first respondent documents in the form of PDF files, word documents and publisher documents (TS 71 ll 40-41). The software and associated services are an important part of the first respondent’s internet postal service.

62 In ascertaining whether software is “incidental” to its internet postal service as submitted by the first respondent, it is useful to test the first respondent’s hypothesis in this way. Computer hardware cannot properly function without the benefit of software. Yet it could scarcely be said in relation to a computer that software loaded on to a computer hard drive was “incidental” to the computer itself, merely because the software allowed the computer to operate in certain ways. This is clear from the many cases involving claims of infringement of trade mark with respect to software (for example, Microsoft Corporation v PC Club Australia Pty Ltd [2005] FCA 1522 and Microsoft Corporation v Ezy Loans Pty Ltd (2005) 62 IPR 54).

63 Software is pervasive in twenty-first century Australia. In the words of one writer:

In case you have not noticed, software is now a key part of our social structure — we sense it in our cars, in our supermarkets, in our televisions, in our computers — we sense it everywhere; it is a ubiquitous, undulating, architectural, air like, water like commodity that infiltrates our daily lives. (Brian Fitzgerald, “Software as discourse?: A constitutionalism for information society (1999) AltLJ 25)

64 However its omnipresence does not, in itself, mean that it fulfils an incidental role in relation to functionalities such as the service provided by the first respondent. Further, the fact that the software used by the first respondent is not sold by the first respondent, or indeed that it has no operation other than in relation to the first respondent’s service, does not mean that it is not “software” for the purposes of classes 9, 35 and 42 for which the applicant has a statutory monopoly.

Collier J then found Mr Crainitch, the managing director, CEO and company secretary of the first respondent, liable for authorising, directing or procuring the corporate respondent’s infringements.  Her Honour dismissed the allegations of contraventions of s 52 and 53 of the Trade Practices Act and passing off.

An application to re-open the case after judgment was reserved was dismissed here and the final form of relief granted is here.  It would appear that the respondents could continue the postal service under the name “bing” if they can come up with a new name for their software.

Bing! Software Pty Ltd v Bing Technologies Pty Limited (No 1) [2008] FCA 1760 

Prof. Mark Davison reminded me that her Honour refused to award damages and points out a possible defence that the respondents might have explored here.