Judge Dismisses Game Hack Charges

CHICAGO – A federal judge last week dismissed charges against a Minnesota webmaster and his Florida-based server company, leaving unresolved the question of whether consumers can modify digital material they’ve already purchased.

The suit was brought – and quietly settled out of court – by Tecmo, the California creator of an Xbox game called “Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball.” The suit alleged that users of the website Ninjahacker.net had reverse-engineered the game so that its already-scantily-clad characters now appeared nude. Doing so infringed Tecmo’s copyright, the suit said, as well as created unfair competition and violated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Details of Tecmo’s settlement with Ninjahacker were not available at press time, but any appeal could employ the Family Entertainment and Copyright Act of 2005, a bill signed into law by President Bush last month. The Act upheld the right of consumers to purchase devices or software that could edit offensive scenes or dialogue from purchased DVDs. The larger purpose of the bill was to protect major Hollywood studios from piracy.

Ninjahacker members used an Xbox “modchip” to alter the Tecmo game as well as others in the company’s catalog, including “Dead or Alive II.” In fact, Tecmo had successfully prosecuted hackers on similar charges in Japan. In both cases, hackers used the modchip to create and apply “skins” to undress the game’s characters.

Tecmo general manager John Inada said, "On behalf of the game industry, the gamers and all future innovations in gaming, the protection of intellectual property is a serious issue that affects everyone in the game industry, and can no longer be ignored."

Some game companies include hacking “Easter Eggs” in their code, offered as bonuses to enterprising gamers who discover them. Giants’ game “Citizen Kabuto” included a file that, if removed from the game’s directory, would divest one of the characters of her clothing.

The Tecmo case, had it continued in court, would have illuminated the issue of modifications made beyond the producers original intentions.