Thursday, 5 March 2020

Cheat software infringes copyright in Grand Theft Auto V

It won't surprise you to learn that computer games are not my thing. I did have to look at one some years ago for a client who objected to the content (we took the view in the end that the Streisand Effect was likely to make anything the client did about it counter-productive). So if I don't relate to computer games themselves, what am I supposed to think about software that enables the user to cheat in the game?

Cheat software is what was in issue in Take-Two Interactive Software Inc & Anor v James & Ors [2020] EWHC 179 (Pat) (29 January 2020) where in an application for summary judgment the judge (Mrs Justice Falk) held that it infringed copyright in the game itself. Not only that, there were breaches of contract both by the defendants and induced by them, the elements of the tort of inducing a breach of contract (knowledge, intention and damage, as laid down in OBG Ltd v Allan [2008] 1 AC 1) being made out against most of the defendants. There were a couple of points (the liability of a minor defendant, and circumvention of technical protection measures under s.296 CDPA to which the defendants seem to have had a plausible factual defence) which were not candidates for summary judgment, but on the other claims the judge saw no reason to leave liability for a trial.

Leaving aside the contract issues, this being an intellectual property blog, the important finding here is that by providing the cheat software the fourth and fifth defendants (the first three having settled earlier) had authorised copying of Grand Theft Auto V or substantial parts of it. The cheat software took information from the game so it could reproduce an image of something for use in the game. That there was copying is plain, and the defendants had provided the means to do the copying. Using the cheat software as intended would inevitably result in infringement.

The defendants tried arguing that the game software on the user's device remained unaltered, and any affect from the cheat software was not permanent: but transient copying is clearly within the s.16 definition of infringement, so that got them nowhere. However, the fact that the impact of the cheat software was on the program when running meant that attention had to be focussed on elements that frankly look a bit peripheral to my mind: images of weapons used in the game, and their software-driven functionality, residing in libraries and code within the program, were the example the judge referred to. Cheating meant conjuring up weapons that the user was not entitled to have, according to the rules of the game, so the copies were infringing ones. It strikes me as a pretty small infringement, and perhaps the fact of the matter is that the wrong here lies outside the scope of copyright (the breach of contract claims look much more substantial and convincing to me), but it does show how copyright can be brought to bear on a problem like this.

Would copyright remedies be worth pursuing? That remains to be decided, and the judge expressed the hope that hte parties will be able to sort that out without a trial. It's hard to see where the damage to the claimant is, and I suppose it's even arguable that the defendants might have made the game a bit more popular by opening up new possibilities and providing a route to a satisfactory outcome that users might not be able to achieve on their own. An account of profits might yield more. However, with copying of elements of the game inherent in the cheating (making more weapons available, etcetera) I can see grounds for the grant of an injunction, which would effectively put a stop to the cheating, even though it seems like a roundabout way to get there.

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