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One of our favorite online games recently got all its servers shut down so that it isn't playable anymore. As a few friends and I are quite experienced at programming and reverse engineering, we have started to reverse engineer the game and develop a compatible server software that, together with a patch for the client of the game allows people to host their own game server and players to connect to that server for online gameplay. The server software is 100% our own code, same applies to the patch that only changes the network interface of the existing client. Now, would it be legal to publish this server + patch on the internet? Or would that constitute a breach of copyright law / a violation of intellectual property?

We are situated in the EU (Germany), the publisher of the game has their headquarters in California.

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    Does this answer your question? Why are private game servers illegal? Nov 17 '20 at 18:28
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    That question seems mostly focused on using/hosting such servers, rather than simply distributing software that would allow that. The arguments are likely similar, but there's a distinction, I think.
    – Ryan M
    Nov 18 '20 at 1:41
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You might want to reach out to similar projects in other MMO game communities which resurect old MMOs that are now defunct. Of the top of my head, the two big communities are the Star Wars: Galaxies (2003-2011) and City of Heroes/Villains (2004-2012). The later uses server source code for the emulation, which was released in 2019 and was widely covered in gaming news.

While it's not a garentee to legal protection from the game's original publisher suing, these games both only accept donations such that they are covering expenses of running servers and maintence. All "new" content is lovingly produced by fans for fans if produced at all (City of Heroes is much more capable of new content production, as it was the first MMO with a player created level designer, which the dev team said at time of release, was largely modeled after their own mission creation tool). The lack of profit means that while legal take down claims are still viable, they aren't attractive to the copyrights holder as lawsuits are expensive and they are suing entities that are not making any money... as lawyers say "You can't get blood from a stone." (That is, you can certainly sue them into the ground, but their not making money so the cost of them folding the legal entity sued... and then starting up elsewhere, is negligable compared to the cost of persuing this.).

Other extant online games have people who use heavily modified servers to let player base play the game with mods and such. One such project is the FiveM/RedM modifications to their base Rockstar Games (GTA V/ RDR2 respectively), specifically the online play versions of both games. These player created servers are more condusive to the Roleplay crowd than the official Rockstar Online Play of the game titles owing to better control over players who join and server access than can be expected from the base games (players normally have to apply with their character's stories and details and prove to the moderation team of a server they can play for story over "winning" through game mechanics.).

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This is not intended as legal advice, but you might come into conflict with §202c StGB. The term "other security codes" looks sufficiently fuzzy that you should talk to a specialist lawyer before you go any further. Your patch is defeating a piracy "countermeasure" on the game software. Countermeasures don't have to be very strong to make hacks illegal. So consult someone who knows the exact precedents and limits.

The other company owns that game, they may decide to host it again if they see a profitable market, and by helping others to hack it you are destroying that market.

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  • Is an online server that provides matchmaking or functions to the game a piracy countermeasure? Also, "other security codes" as mentioned in §202c StGB seems to only apply to data as mentioned in §202a, and that's when you hack passwords or security codes to access data you're not allowed to access. If you create the server software yourself that means you would only be distributing your own data, right? I don't think §202c applies in this case. I'd say that §69d(1) UrhG applies here - the changes to the game are necessary for future usage. Dec 3 '20 at 14:33
  • @FlorianBach, I'm not a lawyer, but on the IT side I came across specifications like "put some encryption in, doesn't have to be foolproof, just so we can sue if someone actually cracks it."
    – o.m.
    Dec 3 '20 at 16:46

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