For some time now, we’ve noted a troubling trend in the video games industry. That trend would be publishers trying to twist copyright law into a pretzel that allows them sue makers of cheat software for copyright infringement. This novel application of copyright law has been piloted by Blizzard and Epic Games in the past. Both company’s theory of the case for copyright infringement revolves around their games being licensed instead of sold, with the EULA being broken by utilizing cheat software. If the EULA is broken and the cheat-maker still makes use of the game, they do so without a license. Therefore, copyright infringement.
This, of course, is not how copyright law is supposed to work. Instead, the point of the law is to prevent unauthorized copying of the product, which is absolutely not the practical result of what these cheat-makers are doing. And, yet, the trend continues, with Rockstar Games winning a summary judgement in the UK against two individuals who developed cheats for Grand Theft Auto 5.
At the Intellectual Property and Enterprise Court, Rockstar and its parent company Take-Two Interactive filed a complaint against several people connected to the now-defunct “Epsilon” cheat. Epsilon was a so-called ‘mod menu’ which offered players significant advantages. The game companies reportedly shut down the cheat in 2018 and identified five men connected to it. They were accused of copyright infringement by creating and distributing the software.
Three of the five settled with Rockstar out of court. The other two, however, defended themselves by both noting that they included a disclaimer of liability to those making use of their software and that the tools they used to make their cheats are widely and publicly available on the internet. The court didn’t buy either argument and found for Rockstar in summary judgement. The court did likewise on breach of contract (the EULA) and inducement to breach that contract, except on the former for one defendent, who is a minor.
All in all, the court ruled in favor of Rockstar and Take-Two, granting summary judgment for copyright infringement against the two men. This means that the case won’t go to trial.
Both defendants were also accused of (inducement of) breach of contract and breach of contract. The court sided with the game companies here as well, except for the breach of contract claim against one of the two, who was a minor at the time of the offense.
Left unexamined appears to be why any of this is actually copyright infringement to begin with. And, if the court truly thinks it is, why the entire modding ecosystem isn’t suddenly one big cesspool of copyright infringement. The law doesn’t care whether a game is online or not. Either mods are appropriate fodder for copyright law or they are not.
One wonders if companies like Rockstar understand the potential harm they are doing to their industry by going down this road.
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