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Transparency: Four big misconceptions about EULAs and owning games

EULAs are weird. So let's make them less weird by understanding some misconceptions about them

As much as we like to think that we own the games that we play on our PC, the truth of the matter is that we don't. The thing that we own is permission to use the software on our computer for personal entertainment. And with that license to use the product comes stipulations regarding what we can or cannot do with that product. It's much like renting or leasing a car. There are limitations - from number of miles we can put on the car to the modifications we can make. But just like a car lease, our end-user license agreement varies between each product.

Some license agreements allow us to make changes to the game as we like. Others have strict policies regarding adding anything to the game files or even using third-party products to help enhance gameplay. And it should go without saying that single-player EULAs contrast greatly with online games' EULAs.

There is no way that I will be able to cover every EULA in existence, but I can cover some of the big misconceptions regarding specific EULAs and the way some players handle them.

It's on my computer, so I can modify it however I'd like.

Unlike a book or a computer, video games are software, which means that there is nothing physical that belongs to you. What you actually paid for when you bought your video game is permission from the publisher to access the software. As I said before, this comes with stipulations about what you can and cannot do with that software. Each game is slightly different regarding those stipulations. Some will allow you to modify the game however you wish; others won’t allow you to change anything at all. Here are a couple of examples.

We all know that Skyrim has become a modder’s paradise. Modding Skyrim has become a game in and of itself. But why can modders do that? Is there some special permission that Bethesda has given Skyrim owners that allow them to do that? Yes, in a way. The EULA talks about New Material that you can make from the game, which in a sense gives you permission to make it, but even moreso, the EULA discusses how you can and cannot distribute this new material:

“You are only permitted to distribute the New Materials, without charge, to other authorized users who have purchased the Product, solely for use with such users’ own authorized copies of such Product.”

However, if you look Star Wars: The Old Republic’s EULA, you’ll see something completely different:

“Except to the extent permitted under applicable law, you may not decompile, disassemble, translate, derive source code from, create derivative works based on, or reverse engineer the Software by any means whatsoever.”

Guess what that means, folks: no mods and certainly no distribution of any kind of mods.

I own it, so I can play it on every computer in my house

Although you can physically install most games on multiple computers, software is licensed to users, not computers. So technically, you can install a game on multiple computers, but only one person can use it at a time. Thankfully, the way games are made now, it’s simpler to track which games will and will not allow you to play on multiple computers at the same time.

Online games are the more obvious example. You log into the game with a username and password, then you can play the game no matter which computer you’re on. And one of the biggest boons in recent history is Steam. Users can actually share games if the game is installed on that computer.

For instance, I have one copy of Batman: Arkham Knight on my Steam account and my son does not. However, if he is on my computer, logged into his Steam account, he can play that game - assuming I give him permission through my account. If a game’s EULA doesn’t allow for game sharing, then Steam’s program won’t allow it either. And if I am playing the game, there is no way for him to do it, too.

I can let a friend install the game on their computer

This falls under the same category as allowing someone else on your computer to play the game. But most of the time, if you’re installing the game on your friend’s computer, it’s not to let him play while you’re not playing. Most of the time, it’s so you can play it at the same time, or at least, in tandem with you. Most EULAs only permit one player to use the game at a time, or at least only allow it to run on one computer at a time.

If we take a look at Steam's game sharing program again, we can see how this is handled. If I install a single-player, single-license game on my computer, then without purchasing a second copy I install that game on another computer, only one of those copies can be active at a time. So let's say that I logged into my Steam account on my friend's computer to install my Bioshock Infinite. And then I share it with his Steam account. This is common and generally OK to do. I'm not playing it anymore, and he's never played it. However, if I go back to my computer to play it again while he's actively playing, I will get an alert from Steam that some else is using that copy. Since I own the game, I can kick him off. But I'm not that mean, am I?

I can pull apart the client files and publicize what I find.

This is a super sticky one with some recent leaks coming from dataminers on both Guild Wars 2 and Star Wars: The Old Republic. Each of the these games has a direct policy against datamining, or as it’s really called, decompiling. Don’t get me wrong - I think both ArenaNet and BioWare might want to have too tight of a grip on how their games are played and the games’ assets, but unfortunately, the EULAs are very specific. This is what ArenaNet’s looks like:

“You will not directly or indirectly:
1. reverse engineer, translate, adapt, disassemble, decompile, or reduce to any human-perceivable form, any Game or parts thereof...”

The truth of the matter is that a it’s highly unlikely that any gaming company will sue you for taking apart the game client. In fact, in most places (like the US courts), it takes a lot more than a document that most people breeze by to hold weight in court. Usually, to hold weight like that, the documents would have to be legally signed by both parties involved. However, if a player has broken a EULA, it is enough to get them removed from the game.

This is just the beginning of this conversation. There are a lot more things to discuss about what can and cannot be done with game files. What are some of the major questions you have? What have you been told that you’re not sure is right or wrong? Let me know in the comments, and of course, let me know your thoughts on these misconceptions.

Published Aug. 28th 2015

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