In the video game Grand Theft Auto V, players steal cars and rob banks. In the real world, its owners are cracking down on players who hack the game itself.
For one Melbourne man, this resulted in a surprise knock on the door.
On the morning of September 25, Christopher Anderson, who is also known by multiple online aliases, had his home searched and some of his computers seized.
The action was taken by lawyers acting for Take-Two Interactive, the parent company of Grand Theft Auto V maker Rockstar Games.
Mr Anderson’s assets have been frozen by a Federal Court order, save for reasonable legal and living expenses — leaving him, he said, to survive mostly on meal replacement supplement Aussielent.
He has also been restrained from further developing or distributing alleged cheating software known as “Infamous”.
One case among many
Speaking to Mr Anderson, who is in his early forties, feels a little like browsing the internet.
Each question is addressed like an online search query; he offers many possible answers alongside occasional quotes from the book Fahrenheit 451, or Ronald Reagan.
In the face of the copyright infringement case brought by Take-Two, he strikes an exasperated tone.
Mr Anderson is currently without a lawyer, and is yet to file a defence.
He is also not alone.
In 2018, Take-Two has taken legal steps against alleged makers of modification software, or “mod menus”, in the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom and Australia, and sent cease-and-desist notices to others.
This includes at least five people the company says are associated with “Infamous”, plus others tied to mod menus with names like “Elusive” and “Absolute”.
In a statement, Take-Two confirmed it had taken action against people selling multiplayer cheat software.
“Cheating software not only gives individuals an unfair advantage, but it also allows interference with the gameplay of other users,” a spokesperson said.
Paying for superpowers
Even among gamers, mod menus are controversial. For his part, Mr Anderson said Infamous helped protect players against more malicious cheats, a bit like anti-virus software.
There is a particular culture of “modding” around Grand Theft Auto, according to Alex Walker, editor of the gaming website Kotaku Australia.
Players might change how the game looks with colourful additions like Marvel comic characters.
But in the game’s multiplayer online version, Mr Walker explained, mod menus can exploit game code to favour one player at the expense of others.
According to Mr Anderson, a “run of the mill mod menu” can effectively give superpowers to the player using it.
“You can, to an extent, manipulate that game environment and depending on the sophistication of the mod, you can create virtual currency.”
Using Infamous, players could grant themselves in-game cash that would otherwise have to be earned by completing missions, or purchased from the developer.
And these advantages didn’t come for free. At times, players purchased Infamous for up to US$40 ($55).
For manufacturers who offer their own in-game purchases, such unofficial projects clearly rankle.
In its 2018 financial report, Take-Two wrote that “cheating” programs “could negatively impact the volume of microtransactions or purchases of downloadable content”.
The report added that in-game spending across its titles now accounted for about 42 per cent of net revenue.
“They are using in-game purchases as part of their business model,” said Mitch Stoltz, senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in San Francisco.
A clash of cultures
The challenge of whether gaming companies should protect their intellectual property from modding — and how to do so — is not unique to Take-Two.
Blizzard, the maker of World of Warcraft, has successfully sued mod-makers for breaching its user license agreement.
The owner of the popular title Fortnite is also going after cheaters, a move that caused consternation after it took legal action against a 14-year-old boy in North Carolina.
Some commentators dispute that copyright law is the best way to control cheaters, and at times, Rockstar itself has approached modifications with a lighter touch — especially mods in single player mode that don’t affect other competitors.
After a cease-and-desist letter was sent to the creator of a popular modding tool in 2017, the company wrote that it believes in “reasonable fan creativity” and would not take legal action against non-commercial projects.
There is also uncertainty about where consumer protections end and the rights of copyright owners begin.
Nicolas Suzor, a law and digital media researcher at Queensland University of Technology, said major publishers often use copyright and contract law to clamp down on cheat developers, but their claims are rarely tested in court.
In September, for example, Take-Two settled a case against an Australian man who they said had infringed the company’s copyright and breached its licence agreement by building other Grand Theft Auto V mod menus.
Taking no prisoners
The use of search and seizure orders in copyright cases is not uncommon, Dr Suzor added. But obtaining them in a closed courtroom hearing without the defendant is, he believes, concerning.
“There is a disturbing trend in copyright litigation that copyright owners exert quite heavy-handed pre-trial discovery techniques to try to seize the assets,” he said.
Grant McAvaney, chief executive of the Australian Copyright Council, agreed search orders were a tough approach, but suggested courts are typically reluctant to make them unless there’s a risk of evidence being destroyed, among other concerns.
“It is pretty heavy handed, there’s no doubt about that,” he said.
“There’s also a suggestion that these mods were being sold to the public, so the court’s going to be less sympathetic to the people in those sorts of situations.”
Along with Mr Anderson, search orders were also used against a man in Glasgow, Scotland in September. Computing equipment was seized over his alleged contribution to a mod menu named “Absolute”.
The 21-year-old, who did not want to be named, said in an email the raid was “quite unnecessary”.
As more cases reach the courts, Mr Stoltz from the EFF said the arguments raised may be pushing the boundaries of what the law can do.
“A cheat code isn’t modifying the game in a permanent sense.”
Take-Two’s crackdown on mod menus comes as it launches its latest blockbuster title Red Dead Redemption 2, which made $725 million in its first three days.
Grand Theft Auto V, believed to be the most profitable video game of all time, made more than $1 billion in retail in its first three days on sale in 2013.
But once these games are out in the world, the players take over. And for now, the “mods” follow.
Mr Anderson’s case is ongoing.
This article was produced in collaboration with The New York Times’ Australia Bureau.