Cheating in multiplayer games is an annoyance for gamers who play by the rules and is increasingly becoming a revenue issue for games developers and publishers.

Legal issues

Creating cheat codes and publicising them constitutes an infringement of copyright (under English law and likely many other copyright regimes). Developers (or publishers) will own the copyright in the software code of a video game as well as the artistic works in the game, such as the imagery and music. In the UK, under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, copyright is infringed where a person copies (s. 17) or makes an adaptation (s.21) of a computer program, which includes modifying the program’s code. A person also infringes copyright if they communicate the copy or adaptation to the public (s.20). It can often be difficult to prove that a cheat maker who publicises a cheat code on a forum, copied or adapted the code themselves, infringement by communication to the public is, therefore, often easier to prove than the other copyright infringing actions above.

Copyright infringement is typically enforced by injunctions and damages claimed by the rights holder (i.e. the developer or its publisher). However, it is also a criminal offence to make an infringing copy of software code for sale or hire or in the course of business (s.107), and, therefore, cheat makers who sell cheat codes to gamers could also face criminal liability.

Terms of Use for almost all games will state that users are not permitted (i.e. not licensed) to use, develop or distribute cheats, bots, or mods. It follows that the cheat makers are copying or adapting the video games and communicating them to the public without a licence from the copyright owner (s.16). Creation or distribution of cheat codes is, therefore, a straightforward breach of contract. Gamers who simply use the cheat codes are also in breach of contract and could face being banned from the game.

This year, American games developer Blizzard successfully obtained an injunction in the High Court against Bossland GmbH, a global cheat code provider, for copyright infringement in breach of Blizzard’s licence terms. In the equivalent lawsuit brought in the US, Blizzard was awarded damages of $8.6 million in a federal court in California against Bossland.

In the US, other developers and publishers are starting to go after the individuals who develop the cheat codes, rather than cheating service providers like Bossland. For example, Epic Games has filed a suit against two individuals for making and using software that allows players to cheat in their game, Fortnite. If convicted, they will be subject to fines of $150,000 each.

Governments are also intervening to take measures to tackle cheating in games directly. In South Korea, a special bill was recently introduced with significant penalties for online video gamers caught cheating, showing the lengths South Korea is willing to go to protect its valuable games industry. Cheaters in South Korea can be given prison sentences of up to five years or a fine of 50 million KRW ($46,000).

Tackling cheating in games

Games developers and publishers are becoming increasingly concerned about the prevalence of in-game cheating and its effect on the gamer experience. The problem is particularly prevalent in the PC-game market. Bluehole, the developers of Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds, which is currently the most played game on PC, recently released a statement apologising for the inconvenience caused to gamers by cheating. Bluehole has said they are adopting new tools to detect and verify unusual gameplay patterns. Its provider of anti-cheat software stated in October that over 322,000 cheaters had been banned since the game’s launch in March 2017. Similarly, in July, Valve banned 40,000 Steam users in a single day for various cheating offences.

There is an arms race between the cheat makers creating new ways to cheat and developers implementing new anti-cheating systems. Niantic, the developer of Pokémon Go, was reportedly forced to remove an anti-cheating measure, which prevented players from using spoofing apps on their phones to log in to the game, after cheaters found a way around the new roadblock within an hour.

Microsoft has introduced a new system called TruePlay which runs games in a protected process that prevents the most common types of cheating and monitors player behaviour. Games developers can decide which parts of the game are accessible to players who opt out of the update, and which parts are mandatory for gamers to install the update (such as for multi-player games).

Cheat makers clearly risk being exposed to claims for breach of copyright, contract, and potentially criminal offences. However, the sophistication of the cheat codes and the size of the market of gamers willing to use the codes means that the battle between games developers and cheat makers is set to continue. It is likely that there will be more multi-jurisdictional litigation in this area in future, as developers target both cheat providers and the individuals behind the cheat codes.