The Digital Millenium Copyright Act, a broad US-law with international support via the World Intellectual Property Organisation, criminalises the production and sharing of circumvention methods for DRM as well as circumvention of access controls to content. While this is meant to prevent piracy, it has the net effect of criminalising legitimate uses of said technology, such as that used by game enthusiasts, video game historians, museums and archivists who want to ensure old games remain playable to future generations.
The desired exemption — specifically worded as, “reconfiguration of video games that are no longer supported by their publisher” — would allow communities to legally modify games so it can run without reliance on the official game servers that powered them once publishers drop official support, although things like server emulation would certainly fall under the same exemption. This is incredibly important not only for documenting the history of video games, but providing consumers options to continue playing games they purchased in a environment that favours artificially imposed lifespans on titles through dubious means.
The EFF’s move has been opposed by the Electronic Software Association (ESA), the trade association with major video game developers and publishers, on the basis that such an exemption would “undermine the fundamental copyright principles on which our copyright laws are based.” Also, such an exemption to the DMCA would send the message that hacking — “an activity closely associated with piracy in the minds of the marketplace” – isn’t illegal! Or something.
Don’t get me wrong; I strongly oppose piracy. And modifying games can be used to illegally acquire and play games without fairly compensating their creators. But “hacking” isn’t illegal, and characterising it as such is deliberately misleading.
The EFF says it best in their story: “Games abandoned by their producers are one area where Section 1201 is seriously interfering with important, lawful activities—like continuing to play the games you already own. It’s also a serious problem for archives like the Internet Archive, museums like Oakland, California’s Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment, and researchers who study video games as a cultural and historical medium. Thanks to server shutdowns, and legal uncertainty created by Section 1201, their objects of study and preservation may be reduced to the digital equivalent of crumbling papyrus in as little as a year. That’s why an exemption from the Copyright Office is needed.”