Single-player games with dead authentication servers ruled DMCA exempt

Should it be legal for owners of online-enabled games abandoned by the manufacturer to modify them in order to continue playing them? Today the U.S. gov't said yes -- with some caveats.

Remember back in April, when the EFF and the ESA butted heads over the EFF and Harvard Law School student Kendra Albert's petition to the U.S. Copyright Office to exempt abandoned online games from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act?

The EFF and Albert were trying to (among other things) make it legal for lawful owners of non-MMO games "that are no longer supported by the developer, and that require communication with a server" to modify their games for the purposes of "continued play, preservation, research or study."

This week they succeeded -- for the most part.

Game developers should pay particular attention to pages 52-56 of the U.S. Copyright Office's ruling on the petition, as it allows for modification and copying of video games only if they have single-player components which require an online authentication check to play, and those online authentication systems have been formally shut down by a developer/publisher or seemingly abandoned for longer than six months.  

That covers a large portion of the video game-related tinkering the EFF was lobbying to make legal, but not all of it. The DMCA still does not allow for video game owners or preservationists to modify their games in order to allow for local or online multiplayer play. This is something they might want to do if they wanted to play or demonstrate a multiplayer game - either a FPS or MMO, for example - after its online servers had been shut down.

Under this new ruling it's also still illegal for game owners to tinker with their consoles in order to circumvent defunct online authentication systems tied to that hardware, a portion of the EFF's petition that the ESA (which represents the interests of companies like Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft) took particular umbrage with. 

However, the U.S. Copyright Office will permit preservationists to modify console firmware in order to make video games playable if their remote authentication systems are discontinued, but only if those modified consoles are used for non-commercial purposes in institutions which are "open to the public and/or to unafficiliated researchers," like libraries and museums.

If you have some time, it's worth spending some of it to check out the U.S. Copyright Office's full ruling for more details on these DMCA exemptions, which encompass everything from video games to car software and mobile devices.

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