BAILEY T. STEEN | WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 7, 2018
Rockstar Games and Take-Two Interactive, the publishers behind the crime series “Grand Theft Auto”, have decided to expand their crackdown against video game cheat developers. The New York Times reports of an Australian federal court judge ruling which states there was enough substantial evidence to issue search warrants against the suspected developers of “Infamous”, the hacking software used to modify GTA V’s competitive online multiplayer.
Over the past year, Rockstar and Take-Two have unleashed a legal vendetta against the cheaters and cheat developers that are currently infesting their multi-billion-dollar franchise. Since May 2018, the companies have jointly issued five cross-border lawsuits currently under consideration through the courts of the United States, Australia and several other European nations.
This recent decision gave law enforcement and lawyers working on behalf of the companies permission to enter the targeted properties, search for all evidence on computers or storage devices containing “any software that provides a player of Grand Theft Auto V access to unauthorized features…” and the ability to seize such property while investigations into potential copyright infringement proceed.
According to the full search orders, which were released to the public earlier this week, the companies successfully identified five Victorian suspects as possible developers behind the Infamous software, which include the alleged lead developer Christopher Anderson and his assistants Cyrus Lesser, Sfinktah, Koroush Anderson, and Koroush Jeddian. The orders also prohibit the mod makers from creating or using game cheats under risk of imprisonment and cannot leave the country as the process continues.
The men are being accused of granting certain Grand Theft Auto Online users full control over “exploit menus” that, once paid for and installed, allowed their customers to unfairly alter the online experience however they saw fit. Whether someone’s idea of fun is to fly across the map, spawn unlimited weapons and ammo, play with invincible health, explode the character models of other users and steal their virtual property (bought either through currency earned within the game or traded for actual money), the menus allowed almost everything a cheater’s black heart could desire. In March, the Infamous website went offline following seperate prior lawsuits, though their memberships were highly popular throughout GTA V’s lifecycle and customers could own these exploits forever for the low price of $40.
For some players of GTA Online, such unfair cheats were just common practice. Since it’s broken launch in 2013, GTA Online has received a reputation as the online experience where hackers and modders abound, controlling this wild west of online exploits where a publisher has a mandate to crackdown on the issues plaguing the community. The reason Infamous seems to be a specific target is their ability to grant GTA users unlimited amounts of virtual currency, which would no doubt harm the microtransaction business model present throughout the GTA system.
Given the money and ethics at stake, the lawsuits have generally received praise among fans tired of the mod-to-win dichotomy granted to the hacker base, though other commentators have raised broader questions about the potential overreach of these copyright laws. Such legal minds have argued modding could be viewed as a form of free expression, which is protected under the First Amendment of the US constitution, rationalising whether there’s search and seizure violations based on these grounds.
“The use of search and seizure orders in copyright cases is not uncommon in Australia,” said Nicolas Suzor, a law and digital media researcher at Queensland University of Technology, who spoke with the Times. “but having them obtained in a closed courtroom hearing without the defendant being represented is concerning”.
“Cheaters do tend to ruin the game experience for others, but not everything that is antisocial is illegal, nor should it be,” followed Mitch Stoltz, the current Senior Attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit organisation with a keen focus on preserving digital liberties. “Changing a game isn’t actually distributing a new version of the game, just as watching a movie through tinted glasses isn’t watching a new movie.”
There is a nuanced case for this argument in the context of single-player. Modding, as the name implies, is to change a product to form new content that uniquely changes the experience, which isn’t the same as fraudulently selling another person’s creation as though it’s original. Allowing these modifications in single-player would be a victimless act, merely granting users full-control over their product in their own little sandbox world filled with NPCs.
The same argument can’t be said of online multiplayer where these same third-party modifications penalise the average, non-consenting user forced into the same game as the modders, whether it’s through corrupted and unfair competition, risks to the security of accounts and digital infrastructure and sometimes literal online theft. These are significant damages not only to the product, but to the users themselves.
When does one’s free expression online move into the illegal realm of harmful exploitation, fraud, abuse and harassment against society? And should this be considered a violation of copyright? Meredith Rose, copyright expert for the Public Knowledge advocacy group, suggests “banning the individual cheaters, for example, would be a fairer and more effective response” instead of issuing outright lawsuits. “The proportionality of the hammer is completely out of scale with the harm being done,” Rose continued.
The publishers seem at odds with how to handle the issue overall. Take-Two has its own authoritarian history of stifling the creation of not only multiplayer mods, but independent single-player content as well. In the past, the parent publisher of GTA has issued cease and desist threats to third-party companies who cater only to offline modifications. VICE reports their claims of single-player mods being a violation has been “routinely contested” by legal experts within the copyright field. Rockstar Games, however, have shown a softer, moderate touch to the issue, demonstrated in their public intervention to stop Take-Two from shutting down the modders so long as their content didn’t influence the GTA Online portion.
“Cheating software not only gives individuals an unfair advantage, but it also allows interference with the gameplay of other users,” the publishers said in a joint statement. “[We’re] committed to protecting our multiplayer community from harassment and other disruptions to their shared entertainment experiences,” the publishers said in a joint statement to the Times. “We can and will continue to take legal action against those who interfere with the multiplayer environment enjoyed by our audiences.”
Thanks for reading! Bailey T. Steen is a journalist, designer and film critic residing in the heart of Victoria, Australia. His articles have been published on TrigTent, Medium, Steemit and Janks Reviews. For updates, follow @atheist_cvnt on either Twitter, Instagram or Gab.Ai, while you can contact him for personal or business reasons directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Cheers, darlings. 💋