Last week, Rockstar banned a number of them Grand Theft Auto V players associated with the “FiveM” mod, which provides players with an online play space separate from the game’s official “Grand Theft Auto: Online” mode. Yesterday, a Rockstar representative told Ars that the bans were issued because the mod is “an unauthorized alternate multiplayer service that contains code designed to facilitate piracy.”
That statement got us thinking: Is a mod that only offers online gameplay on alternate servers really on the same level as simply making an unauthorized copy of a game? The answer, it turns out, depends quite a bit on what you mean by the phrase “facilitating piracy.”
“It doesn’t act like a crack”
“FiveM is not a crack for GTA V nor is it actively trying to facilitate piracy,” said Qais Patankar, who goes through qaisjp online. While Patankar didn’t directly contribute code to the FiveM mod, he says he was caught up in Rockstar’s bans for promoting the mod through online channels such as Reddit.
Patankar did admit that FiveM bypasses the “GTA V launcher” which usually puts game content behind digital rights management. Despite this, he insisted that the mod does not help users gain unpaid access to the single-player (SP) game or the traditional Grand Theft Auto: Online mode. “[Running] Whatever copy you have, FiveM will not act as a gateway to the SP or GTA:O parts,” he said. “Even with a legitimate copy, I can’t open FiveM and get into GTA:O or SP.”
Patankar argues that those behind FiveM should not be penalized just because the mod doesn’t check whether the underlying game is a legitimate copy. While the mod doesn’t prevent people who illegally obtained the game from playing FiveM, it doesn’t act like a crack: [it doesn’t] bypass the verification system so you can play the game without paying,” he said.
Plus, you still need to log into Rockstar’s online Social Club account to use FiveM, Patankar said. That means the creators of the mod, whose accounts have been banned, ironically can no longer use their own creation (most people who have only used FiveM don’t seem to have had their Social Club accounts hit massively so far) .
While Rockstar’s stated policy prohibits “online” mods (as opposed to mods for the single-player game), Patankar argues that FiveM should not be the target of a policy designed to prevent cheating in a centralized gaming space. “There are several ways you can ‘spin’ this,” he said. “FiveM is a mod that works online, but it doesn’t change the [core] online experience. It does mod online code, and it uses online stuff, but it has no influence [GTA:O].”
Despite all these caveats, you could still say that FiveM helps”ease piracy” simply by providing an alternative to the standard GTA:O mode. Cracked copies of the core GTA V generally only work in single player mode and are detected and blocked when you try to log into GTA:O. However, FiveM allows players to get a sort of online GTA experience with a cracked copy of the game, even if it’s not on the “official” servers. That’s probably why the mod is promoted online under thread titles like “cracked GTA Online working” and videos titled “How to play GTA V Multiplayer Free!!”
Patankar said he somewhat sympathizes with that argument. Indeed, Rockstar has put a lot of time and money into the game, and using FiveM gives [pirates] an experience… they wouldn’t get with their cracked ones,” he told Ars. [distribute] none of the original game files and therefore does not share any content that FiveM [doesn’t own]… The mod is not for pirates, it just works for pirates.”
A solid legal framework
Rockstar did not respond to a request for comment on these issues, simply referring us to the official statement at the top of this article. But Law of the Game blogger and attorney Mark Methenitis said Rockstar likely has some valid legal claims against the mod makers for “facilitating piracy”. The first is simply an outright violation of the Rockstar licensing agreement, which gives the company complete freedom to prevent user changes they don’t like (and is backed up by court precedents such as the Wow case “glider”).
Rockstar could also argue that the mod goes against the DMCA’s anti-circumvention language, which prohibits workarounds for “a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work.” “There’s a pretty clear argument that this circumvents the measure to control access to GTA Online,” Methenitis said. “Although a trial could go into some pretty detailed technicalities to determine what ‘access’ means in this context. It’s also hard to say how the reverse engineering exemption might play out here. Given the main [license-based] infringement claim is a bull’s eye for violating the license, the DMCA claim may not be worth the time.”
Regardless of the legal merits, Patankar is somewhat miffed that his ban doesn’t only apply to him Grand Theft Auto V but all games that require a Rockstar Social Club account, including a barely touched copy of Max Payne 3. Methenitis says this kind of collateral damage, which affects access to unrelated games, is almost certainly covered under the terms of Rockstar’s Social Club, but has never really been tested in court.
“If we take this to the next level, I imagine someone would seek redress if, say, they were banned from Steam and lost access to their $1,000 or $5,000 Steam library,” he said. “This is probably one of the big problems in digital distribution to come, especially as people continue to accumulate more and more digital library value.”
“We have already seen similar questions in the case of splitting a digital library in a divorce, or how to deal with the transfer of digital assets after death,” he continued. “Ultimately, unless someone raises the issue with Rockstar (and given the value at stake, I’m not sure anyone will), it’s kind of hard to say where the line really is.”
But in the end, there’s not much that those who support FiveM can do about Rockstar’s decision to shut them down, beyond protesting loudly on the internet. Ultimately, when you make a mod, it’s the creator of the original game who decides what’s good and what’s beyond their personal boundaries.