Cheat Engine – Cheating might be wrong, but it’s not illegal

Posted by: Ryan Rempp

controllerThe creator of Cheat Engine received a letter from a group of video game developers. The letter said that he was infringing on their copyrights. However, looking at previous court cases, the Cheat Engine program should be perfectly legal. The real legal problem lies with the cheats that users were creating and sharing.

Cheat Engine is a computer program that acts a lot like the Game Genie of the early console days. It connects to a program in order to read and write to the memory values that the program is using. In this way, the player can change the program as it is running, usually in ways the program creator did not anticipate. This process is called memory scanning or debugging.

DarkByte created Cheat Engine primarily to function with computer games. That means that players can tailor the game to their wants. If players want to skip a frustrating section, or a boring search for money, they can do that. Making the game easier lets players enjoy the game at their own pace. If the players of Dark Souls want the notoriously hard game to be even harder, they can do that. Adding difficulty keeps the game fresh as players find new challenges to overcome.

Once users find helpful or interesting cheats, many of them share the cheats online. Once cheats are online, the community collects them together into files called tables or trainers. While finding cheats can take a little technical expertise, once someone makes a table, running a table in Cheat Engine is very straightforward. These tables are freely distributed online.

Players should be able to adjust the game as they want, but there are a few issues with Cheat Engine.

Users can use Cheat Engine in multiplayer online games, to gain an advantage over other players. Cheaters in online games ruin the experience for other players, and can even endanger legitimate player’s access to the game. In some games, being in the same game with a hacker can delete the save data of a legitimate player. Cheat Engine can also cause false positives, where automated cheat detection systems ban a legitimate player for playing against a hacker. All of these are concerns for the online video game community, and an even greater concern for game developers who want their online game to be free from cheaters and technical problems. Most game developers have some form of user agreement that prohibits things like Cheat Engine in online games. Cheat Engine claims that it is not for use in online games.

Users can also use Cheat Engine to gain access to On-Disc DLC. DLC, Downloadable Content, is content sold separately from the game or offered as an incentive for purchasers. Game developers might give special content to customers who preorder the game, or buy from certain retailers, or who also own the developer’s other games. Sometimes, content is installed on the computer at the same time as the game, but player can only access it by inputting a code or purchasing the DLC in the online shop. Because it is probably illegal to use Cheat Engine to access DLC, Cheat Engine banned discussion about DLC on its forums, and moderators removed tables that could do so.

In response to these issues, the Electronic Software Association sent a letter to DarkByte, who created Cheat Engine. The letter claimed that Cheat Engine infringes on the copyrights held by ESA members. The ESA is composed of quite a few major game companies, which had legal resources that DarkByte did not have. To avoid being sued DarkByte removed the section where users shared cheats and tables, and suggested that they be hosted on another site.

This letter still raises an interesting question about the legality of Cheat Engine and tables.

The Legality of Cheat Engine

Courts have declared devices like Cheat Engine legal, and so long story short, it is probably legal. Even if Cheat Engine may be used for illegal activities, courts will also consider the legal uses of a piece of software. The illegal activities do not make the program illegal if the software can pass that balancing test.

The ESA is claiming that Cheat Engine violated its members’ copyrights. The rights in play come from two sections of the copyright code. Copyright gives the creator of creative works certain exclusive rights over the use and distribution of the work. The right that could be affected by Cheat Engine is the right to “prepare derivative works.” A related legal issue comes from a law that prohibits circumvention of DRM measures.

Courts already examined the issue of memory editing in video games. The Game Genie was a device that plugged into cartridge game consoles and allowed players to use cheat codes. It works basically the same way as Cheat Engine, and does basically the same thing. The creator of the Game Genie, Lewis Galoob Toys, sued Nintendo. Lewis Galoob wanted the court to declare that the Game Genie did not violate Nintendo’s copyrights. The court agreed, and held that the Game Genie did not infringe on Nintendo’s copyright. The judge compared memory scanning to fast-forwarding in a movie or skipping pages in a book, both of which are legal uses of copyrighted material.

Video games have changed since the Game Genie case. That case was decided in 1992, before the internet was in widespread use, and Cheat Engine has new issues that Game Genie did not. The internet enabled both online play and DLC, and both of those are the real issue at hand.

Getting access to DLC without paying for it is theft, and it is illegal under the law that prevents DRM circumvention. While not a traditional breach of copyright, the DRM statute is part of the copyright code, and so the ESA is technically right when they claim that Cheat Engine enables copyright violation.

Based on the Game Genie case, cheating in online games is probably not a question of copyright, even if there are legal issues with cheating. Instead, most games require users to agree to terms of service in order to play online, and cheating online is a breach of those terms. A game developer may sue someone who helps players cheat on the theory of Tortious Interference with Contracts.

One example of a case dealing with Tortious Interference of Contracts is MDY Industries, LLC v Blizzard Entertainment, Inc. In this case, MDY was selling botting software, and wanted the court to declare that his software was legal. Botting software plays the game on behalf of the player, and it was a violation of Blizzard’s terms of service. This software also had elements to prevent Blizzard from detecting cheaters. The court broke this into three separate issues. It found: 1. enabling users to violate a license was not copyright infringement on its own; 2. circumventing anti-cheat measures violated the DRM circumvention law, and; 3. it was unclear whether the botting software was encouraging people to violate the terms of service. If the software did encourage users to violate their terms, Blizzard could sue MDY for interfering with their contracts.

The big difference between Cheat Engine and the bot software is that the bot software was designed to violate the terms of service. It was created to work with one specific game and it broke the terms of service of that game. Cheat Engine works with just about any computer program, and it has other uses which do not pose a danger to copyright or contracts. The Supreme Court has said that even if a device can be used to circumvent copyright, if it has other valid uses, then selling that device is legal. Even though Cheat Engine can be used for illegal acts, it can also be used for valid purposes.

Because there are valid uses of Cheat Engine, what really matters is how DarkByte advertised his program. If he encouraged users to cheat in online game and breach DRM with Cheat Engine, then he could still be in legal trouble. He did neither of those things. In fact, he specifically told users to avoid those subjects on his forums. So long as Cheat Engine has legal uses, and is not advertised in a way that encourages illegal activity, the creator is legally in the clear.

The final analysis is that Cheat Engine itself is most likely legal to download and use. While it can be used for illegal acts, that does not negate its legitimate uses. Just don’t use it online or use it to access DLC you do not own.

Tables present a little more difficulty legally. The cheats that are included in tables must be intentionally designed, and they may be designed to circumvent DRM. This brings them under the anti-circumvention statute, which prohibits trafficking in programs designed to circumvent DRM. If a user downloads a table that includes a cheat that circumvents DRM, even if they do not intend to use that cheat, they have violated copyright law. It is the user’s responsibility to check the table before downloading, to ensure that it does not offer DRM circumvention.

Unlike DRM circumvention, downloading tables that include multiplayer cheats is probably not illegal, although creating or providing them may open someone up to lawsuit. For someone who is downloading the table, using the cheats is probably a breach of the terms of service for an online game, and can get the player banned from online play, but downloading the table is safe so long as the user only cheats in offline play.


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